Sweet Sweet Sweetfern

My new favorite plant is sweetfern, Comptonia peregrina. (Not actually a fern, but an Angiosperm in order Fagales, which also includes birches, beeches, and walnuts.)

On Tuesday afternoon I came upon large patches of it lining the backcountry dirt road where I was looking for Spruce Grouse*.

The way this plant came by its name, besides the fern-like appearance of its leaves, is that it gives off a wonderful, sweet, spicy smell. You don’t even have to crush the leaves – simply walk through a clump of them, and the action of you brushing against them will be enough to send the aroma rising to your nose.

Apparently sweetfern’s range actually includes Ohio, but I’d never encountered it before moving to the North Woods. Do you have sweetfern where you live?

*I did not find any Spruce Grouse, thanks for asking. I did come across a flock of White-winged Crossbills, though.

8 thoughts on “Sweet Sweet Sweetfern”

  1. I learned about this plant from herbalist David Wood, who made me quite curious about it – been hoping to stumble across it for years, but haven’t yet. He made it sound like a tea made with this plant is quite delicious – like chai…

  2. Hi Rebecca- in Ohio, it’s confined to the sandy soils if the oak openings region wet of Toledo- it is listed as potentially threatened here. It grows like a weed at my in-law’s place in Maine.


  3. We have it here in Massachusetts. It can also be used to help clear your head when you have a cold. I don’t remember the ratio, but you put sweet fern and peppermint in a bowl and pour boiling water over it. Then lean your head in to breathe the steam while draping a towel over your head to hold in the steam.

  4. Hi Rebecca

    I live in the western Catskill Mountains in New York. Despite the fact that we aren’t very far north, our elevation apparently is responsible for the fact that we are a “cold pocket”. Our woods are primarily classic Northern Hardwood Forest – birch, beech and maple-, though some oaks are found here and there. I have yet to find sweetfern hereabouts, though I find it frequently in the nearby Hudson Valley, and have also encountered it in my ramblings in southern New England, and further upstate in the Finger Lakes area, which also has a milder climate. I spend considerable time each year in the Adirondacks; I’ve never found it there, either. I don’t know exactly where you are in Michigan….how would you classify the forest there?

    Catskill Bob

    1. I’m actually not in Michigan, though I’m very close – I’m in northern Wisconsin, a stone’s throw from the border with the UP. The forest here is really a mixture of boreal (conifers, aspens) and hardwood (maple, birch, some oaks, though we’re too far north for beech) assemblages, depending on what microhabitat you happen to be standing in at any given spot. I haven’t been paying too much attention to whether sweetfern seems more associated with one of these forest types than the other, but maybe I’ll start taking note of that. Where these photos were taken was definitely more the boreal type, lots of spruce and tamarack (hence my looking for Spruce Grouse there).

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