Sweet Fern

Comptonia peregrina (L.) Coult

Myricaceae Bayberry Family including Bayberry Myrica pennsylvanica (below)

This native is not sweet nor is it a fern but does have a wonderful aroma when green leaves are crushed. My favorite time to find Sweet Fern is in winter when the curled dried leaves are still attached (marcescent). They won’t drop off until new leaves come in spring. The male pollen catkins have already formed and are ready to open when the time is right.

Sweet Fern Drawing tallerRoots/Stems: It forms colonies of clones from underground stems or rhizomes, can be a pioneer plant in disturbed areas and fixes nitrogen which nourishes poor soil. See below.

Shoots (stems and leaves). The leaves do look like fern fronds with pinnate lobes along a midrib (pinnatifid), but it is a woody, flowering shrub that reproduces with seeds and not spores. Below left: the young shoot has very hairy stems (twigs) attached to a smoother older stem with obvious white dots or lenticels (pores on a stem).

Below: The leaves can have beautiful fall color: greens, golds, browny reds and purples.

Sweet Fern Fall.png

Flowers: This plant is usually monoecious, with separate male and female flowers on the same plant. Because it is wind pollinated (anemophilous) the flowers don’t have to be conspicuous to attract a pollinator. You must look carefully to find them.

Male Flowers: Below left: Immature male catkins in the winter along with last year’s curled marcescent leaves. Catkins or aments (I’m not sure what the difference is) are also called spikes (no flower stalks) because it is a unisexual inflorescence or cluster of florets with no petals (apetalous) along an axis. Right: A little later the catkins relax and droop, so the fringed protective bracts can spread open to release pollen. 4-2-10. Then they fall as a unit.

Female flower: Left below: 4-23-10 The female flower cluster is just below the male flower (on the same plant) and above the new leaves. Several red 2-pronged stigmas peek out of protective bracts where the pollen will land.

Fruit: sometimes called a bur, it has turned green (above right). This will ripen into a brown bristly fruit protecting several nutlets.

Below left: A sketch of Bayberry, a relative I found in the fall on Block Island, that also fixes nitrogen, has aromatic leaves when crushed but a waxy fruit instead of a bur. I’m not sure what was on the underside of the leaf but I liked the colors. Right: Fruit 3-20-19.

Clover nodules

Nitrogen fixing: Nitrogen in the atmosphere is not available to plants. Nitrogen fixation converts nitrogen into ammonia, so plants can absorb it. Several plants fix nitrogen and contain symbiotic bacteria, called rhizobia, within nodules in their root systems.  When the plant dies, the fixed nitrogen is released, making it available to other plants. Many legumes also fix nitrogen. Right: I dug up a clover and found these nodules on the roots. White Clover Trifolium repens in the Fabaceae or Legume Family.

More pictures of Sweet Fern with aments and marcescent leaves. Spiral comes to mind.

2 thoughts on “Sweet Fern”

  1. Hi Carol- Sweet Fern is one of my favorites. It volunteered in a leaching field area where we can’t have any deep rooted plants but this sub-shrub is perfect. While its quite vigorous where it is I’ve been unsuccessful in trying to transplant it to other areas. Maybe that’s just due to my wham-bam-thank-you-mam gardening style! Thanks for creating this blog. I look forward to seeing what catches your fancy next. Jo Ann Wong


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