Many plants and animals are logically named: Common winterberry (Ilex verticillata) produces berries that last through the winter; Black-capped Chickadees (Poecile atricapillus) have a black “cap”; and Beach peas (Lathyrus japonicus var maritimus) are a species of pea that thrives on beaches and dunes. Sweet fern (Comptonia peregrina), however, is much less logically named, as it is neither a fern nor (in my opinion) sweet. Ferns belong to a class of vascular plants that produce spores, rather than flowers and seeds. Sweet fern, on the other hand, is a deciduous shrub and belongs in the class of flowering plants called Angiosperms. As for “sweet”, many describe the scent given off when the leaves are crushed as being sweet. Although the scent certainly aromatic, for me it’s more of a spicy or savory scent. I tend to associate “sweet” with the scents of many fruits and flowers. But, I can only assume that “savory shrub” wasn’t as catchy sounding as “sweet fern” when this plant was named.
Another interesting note about sweet fern’s naming concerns its Latin name. The Comptonia genus to which sweet fern belongs is a monotypic genus, which means it contains only Comptonia peregrina. For this reason, sweet fern is sometimes referred to simply as “Comptonia”, since it is the only plant in that group.
As mentioned above, sweet fern is deciduous, and so will lose its leaves over the winter. But the sweet fern shrubs I encountered this past weekend still retained a number of their distinctive lanceolate, hair-covered, deeply notched leaves, allowing for easy identification.
Sweet fern has the ability to fix its own nitrogen and is often one of the first to colonize barren, nutrient-poor soils. This quality also makes it a useful plant as ground cover for erosion control and species diversity in sterile, sandy soils. In addition, its abundant underground rhizomes make it especially suited to stabilizing steep, sandy banks. Like Inkberry (Ilex glabra), once established dense colonies can form.
Sweet fern leaves (collected when green) can be used fresh or dried to make a tea. I have also used crushed dried sweet fern leaves as a seasoning for meat.