When Is a Fern not a Fern?
Posted: March 28, 2012
When is a fern not a fern? When it is a sweet fern. Comptonia peregrina, or sweet fern, is not a fern at all, but a native shrub. It gets its name from the narrow, deeply-notched, fern-like leaves that give off a pleasant scent when crushed.
This member of the Bayberry Family can often be found along Pennsylvania roadsides, and forest edges. It is particularly well-suited as a transition plant bordering the woods or as a companion plant for low-growing evergreen shrubs and perennials. Sweet fern grows in poor, sandy, and acidic soils, in full-sun to part-shade, and once established, is easily maintained. The plant’s rhizomes (underground stems), and colonizing habit make it ideal for anchoring the sandy soil of banks and slopes.
The sweet fern grows from one to four feet tall, and up to four feet in width, and forms a loose mound. Propagation is most easily achieved through root cuttings or through cuttings of new stem growth. Sweet fern is not easily transplanted. Nursery-grown container plants are often more successfully transplanted than are wild plants.
In spring and summer, the leaves of sweet fern are a rich green. Blooms begin about May, but are inconspicuous. Male and female catkins appear on the sweet fern, and female catkins may form bur-like nutlets, which encase the seeds. Both the catkins and nutlets are not prominent features of this plant. It is during the fall when the sweet fern offers its best surprise- striking deep burgundy to pepper-red foliage.
As a wildlife food source, sweet fern is rated low. Pocono gardeners will appreciate that deer seldom browse this plant. Those gardeners seeking to attract butterflies to their gardens will find that the Gray Hairstreak butterfly uses sweet fern as a larval stage food source.
Sweet fern is one of the most overlooked native shrubs, but can serve a number of functions- as a transition shrub, as a companion plant, as a bank and slope stabilizer, or to naturalize an area. And sweet fern can fit a number of design purposes- adding texture, color, and shape in the landscape. Find a place for this one- you will not be disappointed.
For more information on native shrubs or other gardening topics, contact the Monroe County Penn State Extension Office.
USDA plant database: http://plants.usda.gov
Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center: www.wildflower.org
Missouri Botanical Gardens, Kemper Center for Home Gardening: www.mobot.org