After growing up not knowing about this easy to miss plant, discovering its uses was eye opening
I lived most of my life surrounded by sweetfern without noticing it. It’s one of those plants that has always been there, sitting quietly around the edges and disappearing into the sea of green if you aren’t looking for it. It doesn’t flash any flowers or fruit, so for years, I just walked on by.
I was in my early 20s on my first homestead when we officially met. I was walking back and forth from the cabin we were building in the woods to the pile of lumber we’d milled and stacked up in the meadow.
“The meadow” was actually the old town sand and gravel pit, but a patch of lupines was holding steady so we named it optimistically. On each trip to or from the meadow, I couldn’t help raising my nose to the familiar smell of summer. I noticed that the smell was especially strong at the edge of the meadow right before I reached the treeline. I stood there and looked around for flowers but saw nothing in bloom. I followed my nose and it led me down. I squatted and still saw no flowers but noticed I was in a sweetfern thicket, it’s leaves gleaming in the warm sun. I raked my hands through a few leafy branches and pulled my fingers to my nose. It was one of those big shifting moments when you realize something you thought you knew your whole life is actually something else. The smell of summer that I’d always been so fond of, so familiar with, was actually the smell of sweetfern.
I squatted there, running my hands through the branches, sucking the smell in. My mind ran a highlight reel starting as far back as I could remember: the edge of the hayfield on the farm I grew up on where the tractor would make its wide turn. The archery range at summer camp. The logging cuts where we’d pick blackberries. The edge of the blazing hot blueberry barrens where you’d find a spot of shade and drink your water. The sandy footpath to the granite quarry swimming hole. The trailhead at the base of Mt. Major where the smell would be dreamily pungent in the black of night when my mom would drag me out of bed in time to get to the peak for sunrise. We know that smells have the power to deeply imprint something in our long-term memory bank. I wonder what I may have forgotten of the summers of my life if it weren’t for sweetfern.
It had gone so long unnoticed, but with my new realization that it had always been with me, the sweetfern thicket was now my favorite part of the meadow. It expanded slowly through the years, and didn’t need any tending aside from the cutting back of an alder here and there. I spent a while just enjoying its fragrance. I’d hang bundles of it in the window next to my bed and in the outhouse doorway. I’d stash bundles in my clothing drawers, in my truck, and in the chest with my blankets and hunting clothes. I was (and am) diligent and cautious when learning new plants, so I spent a long time just sniffing and watching and reading before I threw a handful of leaves in a mug and poured over with hot water. I smiled the second the steam hit my face. It was the best cup of tea I’ve ever had.
More than 10 years later, sweetfern is a staple in my kitchen. The tea still brings a smile to my face and we’ve evolved from simple hot tea to sun tea, iced tea, sweet tea, campfire tea, fermented tea, and the best hot toddies.
Every year I find some new way to use it that’s equally satisfying. It’s such a versatile flavor that I end up throwing a sprig in breakfast, lunch, dinner and dessert, and it seems to get along with almost everyone. I liken it to some of our staple kitchen herbs like oregano, thyme, rosemary… but with its own sweetfern-y something. It can go sweet or savory, fresh or dried, leaf, whole twig, nutlet, catkin, or seed – there’s no excuse to not give it a try.
If I could only have you try it one way, I would tell you this: buy a pint of heavy cream (from a doe-eyed Jersey cow in a green field if you have the luxury of a local dairy farm. If not, any cream will do – just make it heavy). Cut a few sprigs of sweetfern to a length that will fit inside a pint jar. Put them in the jar and pour your pint of cream over them. Store in the fridge overnight or up to three day; after that you’ll want to take the sprigs out to not over-flavor. Pick a quart of wild – blueberry, blackberry, raspberry – whichever is ripe. Put your berries in a bowl. Take your pint of cream and turn the jar over a few times, lazily, to mix. Pour the cream over your berries – enough where they sit in a shallow pool and there will be a few sips left when they’re gone. Sprinkle lightly with a pinch of sugar or salt. Eat with a spoon while sitting in the sun.
If I could have you try it more than one way, I would tell you to stuff your squirrels, grouse, and fish with sweetfern sprigs before you roast or grill them. Grind up the leaves or nutlets with salt to rub on your venison chops before they hit the skillet and use that same salt to cure your trout into gravlax or rim the glass of a frosty margarita. Blend the leaves with butter to dollop on a flaky white fish filet or a blueberry pancake. Add a sprig to almost any marinade, braising liquid, broth or stew. Infuse your salad oil, vinegar, simple syrup, and booze. Grind leaves or nutlets into finishing salts, dusting sugars, spice blends, dry rubs and teas. I could go on.
If you’re like I was, then you might know the smell of sweetfern, but not what it looks like. If you’re anywhere east of Minnesota, then you’re likely to sniff it out. If you’re elsewhere in the U.S. you’ll have one of it’s close cousins such as Bayberry, Wax-Myrtle, or Sweetgale, some of which have similar smells, flavors, and uses. Look up which member of the Myricaceae (bayberry) family is local to you, and I’m sure there’s a history of human usage. If you’re in sweetfern country (the eastern third of the U.S.) then you’ll want to head for hot, dry ground.
Sweetfern (Comptonia peregrina) is a pioneer species and a nitrogen fixer which means it is one of the first plants to pop up in recently disturbed ground and reclaim the soil there until it’s suitable for other plants to grow in. Here in Maine, I see it along logging roads and log yards, vacant lots where the ground had been disturbed, sandy, south facing slopes, rocky outcroppings, or field edges. It thrives in full sun and will colonize those places until it gets shaded out in the succession of the forest.
I commonly see it growing near pine, blueberry, sumac, yarrow, bracken, raspberry, blackberry, wild strawberry, pin cherry, goldenrod and juniper – a common cast of characters on the edges of the Maine woods. When you find a spot that seems fitting, you’re looking for a small shrub, rarely taller than 3 or 4 feet. It has woody stems with thin, brown bark and green aromatic cambium if you give a scratch and sniff. This is a way to identify in the winter when there are no leaves to see or smell. It is deciduous, but I’ve found that some leaves tend to cling all winter even after they brown and wither. It has long, slender, very deeply lobed/toothed edges that are sometimes described as fern-like, hence the name, even though it is not related to ferns. There is one leaf per node along the stem, and both the leaves and branches are alternate. In late spring the catkins will elongate and drop fragrant pollen that I love as a source of wild yeast for sodas, booze, or sourdough starter. The leaves stay green all summer and fall until a good hard frost, so you’ve got plenty of time to find some. Cut one bundle and hang it in your kitchen to try this year, and next year you’ll cut two.