Comptonia peregrina

Sweet Fern

Comptonia peregrina, Sweet Fern

Sweet Fern
Photo © by Earl J.S. Rook

Flora, fauna, earth, and sky...
The natural history of the northwoods


  • Comptonia, after Henry Compton, Bishop of London from 1632-1713, by Sir Josiah Banks.
  • peregrina, from the Latin, "foreign"
  • Common Name from the aroma and the fern like shape of the leaf.
  • Also known as comptonie voyageuse (Qué)


  • Kingdom Plantae, the Plants
    • Division Magnoliophyta, the Angiosperms (flowering plants)
      • Class Magnoliopsida, the Dicotyledons
      • Subclass Hamamelididae
        • Order Myricales
          • Family Myriaceae, the Myrtles
            • Genus Comptonia
  • Taxonomic Serial Number: 501619
  • Also known as Myrica asplenifolia, Myrica peregrina, Liquidambar peregrina


  • Not a fern, but a low, deciduous, rhizomatous shrub, 1'-4' tall.
  • Leaves simple, alternate, and fernlike; fragrant and hairy, 2½"-4½" long.
  • Stem red-brown to grey
  • Roots
  • Flowers catkins clustered at ends of the branches; 1¼"-1¾" long.
    • Sepals
    • Petals
    • Stamens
    • Pistils
    • Ovary superior (within blossom) inferior (below flower)
  • Fruit
  • Seeds in burlike heads, with four per fruit


  • Identifiable as he only woody plant in the North Woods with fern like foliage.


  • Ontario to the Gaspé, south to northern Minnesota, Wisconsin, northeastern Illinois, northwestern Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey. South through the Appalachians to northern Georgia.


  • Openings in coniferous forest in well-drained, dry, acid, sandy or gravelly soils. Because it fixes nitrogen, does well on disturbed sites or sites with sterile soil. Drought and salt tolerant. Dry, sterile, sandy to rocky soils in pinelands or pine barrens, clearings, or edges of woodlots
  • Shade intolerant invader of newly opened canopies and disturbed sites.
  • Host to Sweetfern Blister Rust (Cronartium comptoniae), which reduces growth of Jack Pine (Pinus banksiana)




  • The Mi'kmaq used the leaves to treat poison ivy rash.
  • Many Native American tribes used different parts of Comptonia peregrina variously: as an incense for ritual ceremonies; for medicinal purposes; as a stimulant or tonic; as a food seasoning; and as a poison.


  • Leaves used for potpourri, and tea made from the leaves has been used to relieve symptoms of dysentery.
  • Fruits may be eaten raw, and the fresh leaves are used as a lining in fruit baskets to help preserve the fruits.


  • Reproduces by rhizomes and seed.
  • Matures sexually in 2-3 years. Seeds can remain viable in the soil for as long as 70 years.
  • Spreads mainly by rhizomes, forming thickets in sun or partial shade.
  • Colonizes newly burned sites primarily by sprouting from rhizomes.


  • Difficult to propagate by seed.
  • Best started with root cuttings.


  • Hardy to USDA Zone 3 (average minimum annual temperature -40ºF)
  • Available by mail order from specialty suppliers.



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Last updated on 7 March, 2006