Close up of foliage of “Comptonia peregrina (sweet fern)” (CC BY-SA 2.0) by MeganEHansen
Comptonia, or Sweet Fern, is not really a fern at all! Its foliage is somewhat fernlike, inspiring its common name. It is a small shrub with aromatic foliage. Passing by and brushing its foliage releases its sweet, spicy scent. It’s unique texture adds another dimension to any landscape.
Sweet Fern will naturalize to form a colony. These colonies provide cover for wildlife and birds. It’s a perfect choice for a rain garden, stabilizing a slope, or along a driveway. It’s delicate look belies its tough nature. It grows in sandy or loamy soil, but not clay, tolerates drought, wet sites, and wind and prefers full to part sun. Sweet Fern fixes its own nitrogen so will not need any additional fertilizer and thrives in poor soil. It can even tolerate alkaline (high pH) soils.
This deer resistant plant is a member of the bayberry family, and grows to about 4′ in height. (Deer may browse it in winter months but we generally consider it to be deer resistant.) It is hardy from zones 2 to 6. It is a larval host for several moth species, and also supports butterflies and birds. The gray hairstreak requires Sweet Fern in the northern part of its range. Further south, the Hairstreak can utilize other food sources, but not in the north. This particular preference is not fully understood, but makes the plant all the more interesting.
The small nutlets it forms are eaten by Flickers and Mourning Doves. Kirtlands Warbler, a Federally endangered bird, often builds its nest near colonies of Sweetfern.