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Gardening 101: Sweetfern

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Gardening 101: Sweetfern

May 29, 2018

Sweetfern, Comptonia peregrina

When most of us think of scent in the garden, we think of perfumed flowers. And flowers are wonderful (if short-lived). But what about aromatic foliage? Choosing a shrub with fragrant leaves gives us a source of herbal pleasure that lasts many months longer than the ephemeral seasonal scent of flowers. Sweetfern (Comptonia peregrina), a North American shrub masquerading as a fern, is beginning to edge onto the gardening radar. It belongs to the Myricaceae (wax myrtle, or bayberry) family, whose leaves are redolent of resinous spice.

Read on to learn more about the uses of sweetfern and how to grow this native shrub in your garden.

Photography by Marie Viljoen, unless otherwise noted.

Sweetfern&#8
Above: Sweetfern’s native range is in the chilly parts of the eastern United States, and it is listed by the USDA as endangered in four states: Illinois, Kentucky, Ohio, and Tennessee.

The shrub grows in disturbed woodland sites where downed trees have brought sunlight to the forest floor, along roads in poor soil, in pine barrens, and in open meadow areas right up to the edge of fresh water. Sweetfern likes acidic soil, and can tolerate a lot of moisture as long as it drains well. Once established, it is also drought tolerant. The long narrow leaves of this attractive deciduous shrub do resemble miniature fern fronds, and their distinctively herbal scent when crushed makes this plant so appealing.

Sweetfern is an exceptionally cold-hardy shrub (from USDA zones 2 to 6), making it an unusual and tough choice for cold-climate gardening.

Prairie Nursery sells four-inch pots of sweetfern for $8.99

Prairie Nursery sells four-inch pots of sweetfern for $8.99 each.
Above: Prairie Nursery sells four-inch pots of sweetfern for $8.99 each.

In my new cookbook, Forage, Harvest, Feast, I have devoted a chapter of recipes to sweetfern’s use as an herb. I grow it in my Brooklyn backyard so that the useful leaves are always within reach. This is a plant that deserves renewed culinary attention.

In early spring, distinctively attractive sweetfern catkins appear on the shrub&#8
Above: In early spring, distinctively attractive sweetfern catkins appear on the shrub’s naked branches. Intensely scented, they can be used to infuse booze (bourbon works especially well), or chopped finely to become a rub and marinade for mushrooms or meat.

The young tender leaves of sweetfern appear a few weeks later. Chop them as you would an herb such as parsley or cilantro, although their intensely fresh hay-like and resinous scent resembles neither. I like to whip them into compound butters to season delicate seafood, such as scallops, or as a thick crust for roasting lamb.

 The mature leaves of sweetfern are too leathery to chew, but their flavor is intense right through fall, making them ideal for adding intact (like a bayleaf) to moist sautés, stews, and braises. They work especially well with duck.
The mature leaves of sweetfern are too leathery to chew, but their flavor is intense right through fall, making them ideal for adding intact (like a bayleaf) to moist sautés, stews, and braises. They work especially well with duck.
 Photograph by Sara Rall via Flickr.
Above: Photograph by Sara Rall via Flickr.

In fall, sweetfern’s leaves turn a deep and burnished copper, making them a colorful asset in the late-season garden. When chilly evenings return, hardy sweetfern leaves are my herb of choice for a warming toddy after hours of garden clean up, and cold fingers.

Photograph by JardinsLeeds via Flickr.
Above: Photograph by JardinsLeeds via Flickr.

Cheat Sheet

  • Several Native American tribes used a sweetfern infusion as a topical antidote to poison ivy.
  • Like legumes, sweetfern is able to fix nitrogen, hence its success in poor soils.
  • The burr-like summer fruits contain nutty kernels that make a flavorful snack.
  • Once established, sweetfern is a zero-maintenance plant.
  • Sweetfern foliage is (largely) deer-resistant.
  • While it deserves a place in our edible gardens, sweetfern is also useful for pure foliage appeal.
  • When happy, the plant propagates by underground runners, forming new shrubs that are clones of itself.
  • Native plant nurseries stock sweetfern, and more sellers will as awareness of this useful shrub grows: Ask for it.

Keep It Alive

  • Grow sweetfern in full sun or semi-shade.
  • Sweetfern dislikes having its roots disturbed, but the reason is not well understood—transplant your nursery specimen very gently.
  • Slightly acidic soil is best, but sweetfern will tolerate neutral soils.
  • Excellent drainage is key. Sandy soil is good, but clay soils are not.
  • Sweetfern is slow growing, so buy a larger nursery specimen for instant gratification. Otherwise, be patient.
  • To propagate your own shrubs, take root cuttings and pot them up in a gravelly mix.

For more growing tips, see Bayberry: A Field Guide to Planting, Care & Design in our curated guides to Shrubs 101. Read more:

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