Foraging Fragrant Leaves: Sweet-fern

In the past few days, I've collected and dried the fragrant leaves of several different plants.  I'll start by introducing a shrub that I've known since my youth and which still grows along the woods edge behind my childhood home in Maine.  Long before I knew its name or uses, I recognized this plant by its scent.  Sweet-fern (Comptonia peregrina) is tolerant of poor soil conditions and is often found growing in dry, sunny locations.

Photo of Sweet-fern

Sweet-fern's leaves are unique both in appearance and aroma.  While this shrub's leaves are fern-like, its woody branches easily distinguish it from herbaceous ferns.

Photo of Sweet-fern leaves

When gathering sweet-fern, rather than stripping a pile of leaves off of one shrub, I spread out my impact by picking a few leaves from each shrub as I move through a colony.   After a few hours in my electric dehydrator at 105 degrees, the leaves were crisp and ready for a jar.  The leaves (fresh or dried) can be brewed into tea.

Photo of Sweet-fern nutlets

This time of year, immature nuts can also be gathered.  They develop in spiked burrs along the branches, and, once removed, resemble small pine nuts.

Photo of Nutlets in hand

I didn't get much flavor from the few I ate, but had fun sampling them nonetheless. If you don't yet know this plant, I hope you smell it soon.

10 thoughts on “Foraging Fragrant Leaves: Sweet-fern”

  1. Hi, I am curious about how big sweetfern gets on average or at maximum.

    I am in Atlanta, GA but thinking of trying to grow it. I think it grows in north GA, but have never seen it.

  2. My grandfather told me that Sweet Fern was used by Native Americans to make soap. Have you ever heard of this use for Sweet Fern?
    Jim D.

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