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Comptonia peregrina

Sweet-fern, Sweetfern

Plant Details

Common Name: Sweet-fern, Sweetfern
Family: Myricaceae (bayberry family)
Mature Height: 2 - 5'
Sun Requirement: Sun to part shade, Part shade to shade
Moisture Requirement: Dry, Dry - medium
Flower Color: Yellow, Green
Bloom Time: Spring (May or earlier)

Comptonia peregrina sweet-fern
Comptonia peregrina sweet-fern

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Comptonia is named in honor of the Rev. Henry Compton (1632-1713), bishop of Oxford, dendrologist and patron of botany; peregrina is Latin for one who travels.

Native Habitat

Dry, open woods and sandy barrens.

Garden Uses

Sweet-fern grows well in sandy soils, from well-drained dry sites to the edges of marshes. It is a good plant for stabilizing slopes or embankments and is a low-maintenance plant that tolerates drought. An interesting and vigorous plant for native plant gardens or naturalized areas where it can be left alone to colonize—be sure to give it plenty of room.


Sweet-fern is an upright, deciduous shrub (typically growing 2-4' tall and spreading 4’-8’). A native shrub of eastern North America that most often occurs in poor, sandy or gravelly soil; it is a good shrub for areas with poor soils, such as along alleys, waste areas or roads. The foliage is aromatic and resembles that of a fern, hence the common name of Sweet-fern. It fixes its own nitrogen.

Leaves and Stems

The leaves are simple, narrow, lustrous, pinnatifid (divided, but not all the way to the center), deeply notched, olive to dark green (to 4" long). Multiple stems with loose, spreading branches.


The flowers are insignificant, yellowish green catkins that appear in spring before the leaves unfurl.


The flowers give rise to a small greenish brown, burr-like nut enclosed in a bur-like husk.

Animal Associates

Sweet-fern attracts both birds and butterflies. It is a larval host plant for a wide variety of moths including the Io moth and several sphinx moth species. It is also a host plant for the Gray Hairstreak (Strymon melinus) butterfly.


Root cuttings are the principal means of propagation.

Ethnobotanical Uses

An infusion of the leaves has been used by some native American tribes to treat poison ivy.

Garden Location

Teaching Garden (see garden map)


Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center

Missouri Botanical Garden

Prairie Nursery

Minnesota Wildflowers 


Plant Profile by Kathy Kling