Sweet fern (Comptonia peregrina) is a deciduous, rhizomatous plant that is native to North America between Nova Scotia and Norhtern Georgia, and as far west as Tennessee.1
Historically, sweet fern was utilized by Native North Americans for various purposes. Primarily, it served a medical function due to its ability to act as an “astringent, blood purifier, expectorant, and tonic.” Native North Americans used sweet fern as a poultice for wounds, and to make tea to cue diarrea, fever, etc. Additionally, sweet fern can be used topically to relieve itchiness from poison ivy or stings by infusing cold water with the leaves. Besides health benefits, sweet fern can repel insects, such as when thrown on a camp fire.2
Sweet fern also has many modern-day uses. Due to its ability to fix nitrogen, sweet fern is often planted in places where the soil has been disturbed so as to rehabilitate the site.1 It is also edible to humans, and frequently used to make tea, infusions, and seasonings.2 Finally, sweet fern is valuable to wildlife. It is a food source for flickers, and provides some food and shelter to cottontail rabbits and ruffed grouse. It is also eaten by moose and various species of deer depending on the season.3 It also attracts pollinators and possesses a palatable fragrance, which, in combination with its ability to fix its own nitrogen, makes it a favorite for people planting naturalized gardens.4
1. Pijut, Paula M. “Comptonia peregrina.” In: Francis, John K., ed. Wildland shrubs of the United States and its territories. Thamnic. Vol. 1. Gen. Tech. Rep. IITF-26. Rio Piedras, Puerto Rico: US Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, International Institute of Tropical Forestry: 237-239. 26 (2004).
2. “Comptonia peregrina- (L.)J.M.Coult.” Plants For A Future. https://pfaf.org/user/plant.aspx?LatinName=Comptonia+peregrina#:~:text=S….
3. Snyder, S. A. 1993. Comptonia peregrina. In: Fire Effects Information System, [Online]. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station, Fire Sciences Laboratory (Producer). Available: https://www.fs.fed.us/database/feis/plants/shrub/comper/all.html [2021, April 26].
4. “Comptonia peregrina.” Extension Gardener: North Carolina Plant Toolbox. NC State. https://plants.ces.ncsu.edu/plants/comptonia-peregrina/