Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Foraging 31: Sweetfern

You don’t love a person because they are beautiful. They are beautiful because you love them. – Unknown Author

Dewy sweetfern in (very) early morning.
Isn't that a sweet quote? This post is about an edible plant, but sweet is sweet...

Comptonia peregrina is native to eastern North America, from southern Quebec south to the north of Georgia, east to the Atlantic coast and west to Minnesota. The common name is Sweetfern (or sweet-fern), which is confusing as it isn't a fern at all! Another common name is Fern Gale. The plant is a member of the Bayberry family.

What's so special about this plant? The leaves are aromatic. If you pick the leaves and rub them between your hands a pleasant, sweet fragrance is released. Ergo, the first part of its name.

About sweetfern
Sweetfern is a deciduous shrub, which means it looses its leaves in the winter. Sources say it can grow to 3 feet tall, although I am hard pressed to remember seeing it grow to more than 2 feet in Nova Scotia. It has a woody stem with multiple branches off from the main stalk. Sweetfern tends to grow in poor soils and seems to favor pine stands – possibly because of the increase in soil pH due to the pine needles.

The leaves do look somewhat "fern-like."
As a side note, did you know that pine needles under rhododendrons can increase acidity of the soil and help them flourish? Just gather pine needles, fresh or brown, and let them decompose around the rhodo stock.

Sweetfern is used as food by the larvae of some butterflies. It is also a non-legume nitrogen fixer. The resemblance of the leaves to those of a fern have given it its common name though the plant is obviously not a fern.

Folkloric Uses
Some native Americans are said to have used sweet fern leaves to treat poison ivy. Jewelweed (an earlier post) has the same anti-poison ivy properties. I do know I would have an easier time in Nova Scotia locating sweetfern than that elusive plant. 

Sweet Fern tea made from the leaves is supposed to help stop diarrhea, and it is possible that the leaves may have insect repellent properties, aside from some butterflies who use them as a source of food...

Because of their potential insect repellent properties sweetfern is supposedly able to increase the longevity of fruit in bowls. I have never tried it so I don't know. But I can imagine crushing the leaves would definitely add aromatic enjoyment to your kitchen or living room.

Sweetfern nutlets in winter. Photo: we'moon in the woods, Flickr ccl
Uses in cooking
Sweetfern flowers and therefore produces seed. The subsequent nuts are supposedly edible. "Ontario Trees and Shrubs" list the "nutlets" as edible, so I have to believe they are. I've never tried (or noticed) them...

Sweetfern can be used as a herb in as many dishes as you're willing to try. To dry it just hang branches inverted for 1-2 days. They dry quite quickly and can be saved whole or crumbled. I have seen recipes where they are used with scallops, fish and chicken. Google "sweetfern recipes" to find out more.

Here's a recipe to use the leaves in a tea. I know the smell of sweetfern well. Picturing it in a tea is an interesting idea. I'm definitely going to gather some before it is all killed by frost to try over the winter months.

Photo: Frank Gruber, Flickr ccl
Sweet Fern Tea
Recipe is for 1 cup. Increase as desired
1/2 cup dried sweet fern leaves
for every 1 cup water (or to desired strength)
honey or sugar to sweeten

Crush the leaves and either tie up in cloth or place in a tea strainer. Pour boiling water over the leaves and allow to steep for 5 minutes. You may need to press some of the liquid out of the leaves when straining as they will absorb and expand somewhat.

Remove the steeped leaves, sweeten, sit back, relax and enjoy!


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