Sweet-fern

Sweet-fern leaves and fruit.

Sweet-fern is a colony-forming, small shrub with wonderfully aromatic fern-like leaves.  This shrub is a useful selection in the landscape for erosion control and naturalizing, due to its tolerance of adverse conditions. It is adaptable to poor, infertile soil and is also drought, salt, and heat resistant. 

This species is native to the Chicago region according to Swink and Wilhelm's Plants of the Chicago Region, with updates made according to current research.

Botanical name:

Comptonia peregrina

All Common Names:

Sweet-fern, Sweetfern

Family (English):

bayberry

Family (Botanic):

Myricaceae

Tree or Plant Type:

  • Shrub

Foliage:

  • Deciduous (seasonally loses leaves)

Native Locale:

  • Chicago area,
  • Illinois,
  • North America

Landscape Uses:

  • Foundation,
  • Massing,
  • Mixed border,
  • Patio/sidewalk,
  • Specimen

Size Range:

  • Small shrub (3-5 feet),
  • Low-growing shrub (under 3 feet)

Light Exposure:

  • Full sun (6 hrs direct light daily),
  • Partial sun/shade (4-6 hrs light daily)

Hardiness Zones:

  • Zone 2,
  • Zone 3,
  • Zone 4,
  • Zone 5 (Chicago),
  • Zone 6

Soil Preference:

  • Acid soil,
  • Sandy soil

Season of Interest:

  • Late spring,
  • Early summer,
  • Mid summer,
  • Late summer

Flower Color & Fragrance:

  • Inconspicuous

Shape or Form:

  • Round,
  • Thicket-forming

Growth Rate:

  • Slow,
  • Moderate

More Information:

Size and Form

A rounded, 2 to 4 feet high and 4 to 8 feet wide, possibly larger due to suckering habit.

Tree & Plant Care

Low maintenance, unusual green leaves turn brown in fall and persist most of the winter.
This shrub is drought, salt, and heat resistant.
May be difficult to transplant.
Does not do well in clay soils.

Disease, pests and problems

None serious

Disease, pest, and problem resistance

Resistant to drought, heat and salt.
Tolerates infertile soils.

Native geographic location and habitat

C-Value: 9
Native in the Chicago area as well as the upper Midwest and the northeastern United States.

Bark color and texture 

Stems green to yellow brown with obvious lenticels.

Sweet-fern (Comptonia peregrina)
Sweet-fern (Comptonia peregrina)

Leaf or needle arrangement, size, shape, and texture

Simple, alternate, dark green fern-like leaves; narrow and about 2 to 4 inches long.
Leaves are fragrant.

Flower arrangement, shape, and size

Inconspicuous; small catkins.

Fruit, cone, nut, and seed descriptions

Nutlets in a bur-like cluster.

Location of Comptonia peregrina (Sweet-fern) at the Arboretum