In Bloom: Sweet Fern

By Suzanne Wodek

Sweet Fern. Anne Holmes, artist

Comptonia peregrine, commonly called sweet fern, is not actually a fern but a low-growing shrub in the same plant family as wax myrtle or bayberry. The genus Comptonia is named in honor of the Rev. Henry Compton (1632-1713), Bishop of Oxford and successful botanist. Peregrine means having a tendency to wander, which refers to this plant’s habit of spreading by rhizomes that form thickets.

Once established, sweet fern can spread rapidly, so give it plenty of room. This attractive plant is also named for the narrow, fern-like leaves and pleasant sweet-smelling fragrance when crushed.

Sweet fern tolerates many conditions including drought, wet sites and wind. It prefers sandy, acidic, well-drained soil in full sun to part shade. It does not transplant well, so choose a location carefully. It is also a great choice for stabilizing slopes and embankments.

Hummingbirds and pollinators love the yellowish green blooms which appear now and sometimes last through summer. Sweet fern is also an important larval host for a wide variety of moths including the Io, several sphinx moth species and the Gray Hairstreak butterfly. The blooms are replaced by greenish brown fruits that support birds and small mammals.

Traditionally, sweet fern poultices are used for toothache or muscle strains. Dried or fresh leaves make a sweet, flavorful tea and herbalists claim it may relieve diarrhea or other stomach complications. Tossed on a camp fire, sweet fern leaves may keep mosquitoes at bay. A tea made from this plant has been said to be beneficial in treating the effects of poison ivy when applied to the affected area.

Upcoming Events

Spring Plant Sale
Friday, April 29, 11:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Saturday, April 30, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.
The Botanical Gardens (BGA) and numerous local plant vendors will offer a wide variety of trees, shrubs and flowers. Members will get a 10 percent discount on BGA-grown plants that we sell at the Gazebo. As always, this event will take place rain or shine. Free admission and parking onsite or nearby.

Spring Bird Walk with Dr. Andrew Laughlin
Sunday, May 1, 8:30 to 10 a.m.
Join us for an easy, early morning walk in the Gardens led by Dr. Andrew Laughlin, longtime birder and UNCA assistant professor and researcher. As we look for, listen to and enjoy birds, we’ll learn to recognize their songs and calls. Field guides are helpful but not required. Bring binoculars if you have them and dress for rain or shine.

Spring Wildflower Walk with Dr. David Clarke
Sunday, May 8, 9:30 to 11:30 a.m.
Dr. David Clarke is a botanist and professor of Biology at UNCA, where he has taught for the past 21 years. Most of his courses are focused on plant diversity, conservation, ecology and evolution. He has served on the board of the BGA for 20 years.

Botanical Gardens, located at 151 W.T. Weaver Boulevard, is a nonprofit organization housing a collection of plants native to the Southern Appalachian Mountains. Admission is free, but donations are appreciated and memberships are encouraged. Participants must pre-register and pre-pay for all programs. Cost is $15 for members and $20 for non-members. Learn more at AshevilleBotanicalGardens.org.

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