Comptonia peregrina (Sweet-fern)

Plant Info
Also known as:
Family:Myricaceae (Bayberry)
Life cycle:perennial woody
Habitat:part shade, sun; dry, acidic, sandy or rocky soil; pine barrens, clearings, upland prairie, savanna
Bloom season:May - June
Plant height:2 to 4 feet
Wetland Indicator Status:none
MN county distribution (click map to enlarge):Minnesota county distribution map
National distribution (click map to enlarge):National distribution map

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Detailed Information

Flower: Flower shape: indistinct Cluster type: spike

[photo of male catkins] Male and female flowers are borne separately on the same plant (monoecious) or different plants (dioecious) in clusters called catkins; flowering occurs before leaves emerge. Male catkins are drooping and cylindrical, ½ to 1¼ inches long, single from lateral buds, mostly crowded at tips of one-year-old twigs, with 25 to 50 flowers each with a sharply pointed scale-like bract and 3 to 8 pale stamens.

[photo of female flowers] Female catkins are erect, round to egg-shaped, 1/16 to 1/6 inch long, from lateral buds immediately below the male catkins when present and at branch tips when not. Catkins have 20 to 45 flowers each with 2 red filament-like stigmas subtended by a broad bract.

Leaves and stems: Leaf attachment: alternate Leaf type: lobed Leaf type: simple

[scan of leaves] Leaves are simple and alternate, the blades linear-oblong or lance-linear, 1¼ to 5 inches long, 1/3 to ¾ inch wide, the base and tip sometimes blunt or tapered to a sharp point, short-stalked or stalkless, the edges toothless but fern-like with deep, rounded to squarish lobes with blunt or pointed tips. The upper surface is dark green, hairy or becoming smooth, lower surface pale green, hairy or becoming smooth. Both surfaces are heavily dotted in yellow glands. At the base of the leaf are a pair of leafy appendages (stipules) that are somewhat heart-shaped with a long taper to a sharply pointed tip. Twigs (see flower photos above) are very fine, brown to reddish or purplish, gland dotted, hairy with a few scattered lenticels (pores). Stems are much branched above, the tips lacking a terminal bud. Lower stems up to around 1/3 inch diameter with smooth, reddish-brown to gray bark.

Fruit: Fruit type: capsule/pod

[photo of maturing fruit] Flowers develop into a round bur-like cluster, 1/3 to ¾ inch across, with 8 to 15 egg-shaped nutlets nestled among the bur-like bracts.


Sweet-fern, formerly known as Myrica perigrina, spreads by rhizomes and can be found in large colonies, scattered along sandy roadsides, forest edges or openings in north east and north-central Minnesota. While it can persist for some time in closed canopy habitats, it will grow abundantly only after the canopy is opened by fires or logging. Like most members of the bayberry family its leaves are extremely aromatic, so much so that on a warm day the fragrance can be detected at some distance without crushing its leaves. While its pinnately lobed leaves might be compared to those of ferns, its woody branches and fragrant odor will not mistake it for anything else. The leaves can be used to make herbal tea and some have used it as a cooking herb. It is also reputed to be a cure for the itching of poison ivy.

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More photos

Photos courtesy Peter M. Dziuk taken in Carlton, Pine and St. Louis counties.


Have you seen this plant in Minnesota, or have any other comments about it?

Posted by: Danielle - Cloquet, MN (Carlton County
on: 2017-06-07 10:17:11

It can be found along the logging roads at the Cloquet Foresty Center.

Posted by: Bonnie H - Pine River
on: 2017-06-14 19:03:35

It grows well in drier sandy soils here in MN USDA zone 3. Most importantly it is deer resistant. It seems to be best dug and potted in early spring or fall or it tends to get shocky and wilty. It grows at the base of Jackpines.

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