Shrub of the Week: Comptonia (Sweetfern)

Published on

{This text and images was provided by Paul Snyder of OSU's Secrest Arboretum}


Last week we featured Bayberry, Myrica pensylvanica, and this week we highlight another member of Myricaceae, Comptonia peregrina, Sweetfern.


 This plant is not a fern. Rather, Sweetfern is a native woody shrub. According to E. Lucy Braun (The Woody Plants of Ohio), it is only found in a few counties in Ohio where it inhabits open oak forests, pastures, and roadsides. This plant fits into the category of small shrubs that many homeowners are looking for, maturing at a height of 2-4’.


Comptonia foliage


The foliage is dark green and fragrant, resembling that of a fern, hence its common name. With no serious insects or diseases, the foliage of this plant remains clean and attractive all summer. Interestingly, this plant develops a mutualistic symbiosis with bacteria that harness atmospheric  nitrogen much like members of the Fabaceae. Due to its nitrogen fixing ability it has been used in highway plantings and other tough sites. It is slow to establish, but once it does it forms a small colony.