Comptonia peregrina- Sweetfern

Sweetfern, Comptonia peregrina

Family: Myricaceae, the Wax-Myrtle Family

Description: Native dioecious shrub up to 1.5m tall. Long, lobed leaves are fern-like (note: this plant is not a true fern). Crushed leaves produce pleasant, sweet aroma.

Abundance: Common

Habitat: Dry, disturbed sites

Plant Parts Used: Leaves

Food: Tea

Medicine: Poison ivy rash, irritated skin

Other: Hunter perfume

The most notable aspect of sweetfern is its aroma. On hot sunny days the leaves do not even have to be crushed to release their sweet smell. John told me that this smell helps mask human scent, so a sweetfern patch is useful for hunters as a hiding place or rubbed into the skin as a sort of “hunter perfume” so they can go unnoticed. Terry-Anya said the leaves also make a nice robust tea, which is also helpful for osteoarthritis.

The tannin content in the leaves helps reduce inflammation due to poison ivy, so a wash of the leaves is a good treatment for poison ivy rashes. Deb said a strong tea or fresh tincture can be used topically for irritated, itchy skin—especially poison ivy rash. Moerman’s research shows that the Mi’kmaq used the leaves as a dermatological aid to treat swellings, sprains, inflammation, and poison ivy rash. The Penobscot and Mohegan used sweetfern specifically for poison ivy while the Shinnecock and Potawatomi used the leaves as a wash for itchy skin.

Note: This post is part of my Plants and People series. See my Plants and People page for more information about the project and the people referenced in this post.


  • Brooks, John. Personal Interview. 28 Nov. 2010.
  • Haines, Arthur. “Preserving Native Plant Knowledge.” Somes-Meynell Wildlife Sanctuary, Mt. Desert, Maine. 9 Oct. 2010. Lecture.
  • Hayes, Terry-Anya. Personal interview. 27 Oct. 2010.
  • Michener, Martin C. Botany Everywhere: Woods, Field, Home, and Garden Plants of NE USA, Third Edition. Hollis, NH: MIST Software Associates, Inc., 2009. PDF.
  • Mittelhauser, Glen H., Linda L. Gregory, Sally C. Rooney, and Jill E. Weber. The Plants of Acadia National Park. Orono, Me.: University of Maine, 2010. Print.
  • Moerman, Daniel E. Native American Medicinal Plants: an Ethnobotanical Dictionary. Portland, Or.: Timber, 2009. Print.
  • Soule, Deb. Personal interview. 4 Feb. 2011.