Sweet Fern

Basic Information
Tree ID: 
Genus and species: 
Contrary to its name, Sweet Fern is not actually a fern. It is a flowering shrub with fern-like leaves that is native to eastern North America. Today, Comptonia peregrina is the only extant species of Comptonia. Unfortunately, this specific Sweet Fern plant is dead.
Collected Data
Date of tree entry: 
0.70 m
The leaves are narrow, dark green and fern-like. They release a sweet aroma when rubbed or crushed.
Reproductive Structures
The Sweet Fern plant is monoecious with imperfect flowers. Male flowers look like long, yellow-green catkins. The female flowers are shorter and rounder with red bracts.
The female flowers become yellow-green burrs, which contain several nutlets inside.
  • Late winter/early spring (dead)
  • Early spring (dead)
  • Mid spring (dead)
  • Winter (https://i.pinimg.com/originals/69/f9/6c/69f96c72ee76167558f4c5dbe3543f35.jpg)
  • Spring (https://www.gardenia.net/storage/app/public/uploads/images/detail/srAuzsCHM2hqTrdeKvsnj90tManLNQXsCfZpl9fA.jpeg)
  • Summer (https://media.gardenista.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/05/sweetfern-shrub-marie-viljoen-1024x683.jpg)
  • Fall (https://media.gardenista.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/05/sweetfern-fall-color-sara-rall-733x487.jpg)
Natural range of distribution: 
Found in anthropogenic (man-made or disturbed) habitats, grassland, meadows and fields, woodlands. Grows well in acidic/dry & sandy soil.
Origin, history, and uses: 

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/

Shrub Canopy Area: