by Matt Gibson
Want to learn about the sweetfern plant and how to care for it? Despite the misleading name of the plant, the sweetfern is not a fern. However, its pretty green foliage does seem rather similar to the leaves of the more common ferns you’re likely to have seen in a hanging basket or on your grandma’s front porch.
Sweetfern gets its name from the shape of its narrow, fern-like leaves as well as their sweet, refreshing smell. The sweetfern’s foliage is also aesthetically pleasing in the garden, with deeply notched olive to dark green leaves that can grow up to four inches long. It’s is known for its ability to turn a deep bronze color during the fall.
Due to sweetfern’s attractive appearance and enjoyable fragrance, this shrub is starting to become a popular choice for modern gardeners. Want to try your hand at growing this low maintenance deciduous shrub? Read on to learn all you need to know about growing sweetfern.
Sweetfern belongs to the plant family called Myricaceae, which also includes wax myrtle, bog myrtle, bayberry, sweet gale, and candleberry. Native to eastern North America, the sweetfern is a small, highly fragrant shrub. Within the plant family Myricaceae, the sweetfern genus is a family that includes more than 40 shrubs and small trees, each of which can grow to reach heights between three and six feet. These cold tolerant, wind resistant shrubs thrive in USDA zones two through five, and once your sweetfern is well established in the garden, it will be a zero maintenance plant.
Yellowish-green blooms appear atop the sweetfern shrub in early spring, and the blossoms stick around until the summer heat puts an end to their showy streak. After the flowerheads die back, they are replaced with greenish-brown nutlets, which can be harvested and enjoyed as a tasty snack or used as an ingredient in wraps and salads to add a nutty crunch of flavor. The plant isn’t just a tasty treat for humans, either—sweetfern flowers are a favorite of hummingbirds and other pollinators, which means including it in your garden will help attract insects and birds to pollinate your flowers.
Sweetfern leaves have been used throughout the centuries both as a seasoning and as an herbal remedy in folk medicine. Native American tribes concocted a sweetfern infusion, which they used as a topical treatment to soothe poison ivy and other skin rashes.
Though the shrub’s foliage has been put to use by a handful of cultures as a seasoning, you won’t find sweetfern for sale with the bottles on the spice aisle or see it called for as an ingredient in a modern recipe. However, some gardeners believe that sweetfern deserves some renewed attention in culinary circles, as the plant’s noticeably sweet aroma is coupled with a complex and original flavor profile experts say is like nothing else that you will find in the herb garden or spice cabinet.
The outer leaves of the sweetfern plant are too tough and leathery to be chewed, but these outer leaves can still be used in the kitchen. Simply add them to soups, stews, sauces, and marinades, using them as you would a bay leaf, and take the sweetfern out before serving the completed dish.
The young, inner leaves are tender and should be chopped before use, as you would with cilantro or parsley leaves, then added to an herb butter. The tender leaves can also be used as a mild seasoning for seafood or applied as part of a thick crust on the outside of lamb, veal, or other savory roasted meats.
Growing Conditions for Sweetfern
Hardy to USDA zones two through five, sweetfern can sometimes also survive in zone six, but it typically cannot survive in the warmer climates above zone six.
Sweetfern prefers a sandy or gritty soil that is slightly acidic, but the plant will tolerate just about any soil it is provided with as long as it offers plenty of drainage. Like legume plants, the sweetfern is capable of fixing its own nitrogen levels, allowing the shrub to have success even in soil conditions other plants would find lacking in nutrients.
Place your sweetfern plants in full sunlight or partial shade. No fertilizers are required, and very little supplemental watering is needed after the shrubs have been established. Watering, in fact, will only be necessary in cases of extreme heat or drought.
How to Plant Sweetfern
Sweetfern seeds are notoriously slow to sprout and difficult to germinate, and once they’ve sprouted, the seedlings are nearly impossible to transplant. Purchasing fully grown shrubs and planting them directly into the ground is the best way to add sweetfern to your garden. You can also take a root cutting from an established plant and place the cutting in a location with plenty of room for it to root and expand.
Care of Sweetfern
As mentioned above, sweetfern plants require little to no care once they are established in the garden. Very occasional pruning may be necessary to improve the shrub’s looks and keep it tidy. Trim back leaves and stems that have begun to grow above the plant’s natural mounded shape. Supplemental watering is only needed in cases of severe drought or heat.
Reproduction of Sweetfern
Once established, sweetfern is known to spread rather rapidly, forming dense colonies of shrubs. To accommodate this propensity to multiply, be sure to position sweetfern plants where they will have plenty of room to develop and expand.
Propagation from cuttings or division is not recommended, as the shrub does not transplant well. However, if left unpruned, sweetfern will propagate itself by forming underground runners, which are the start of new shrubs that are actually clones of the mother plant.
Sweetfern seeds can be purchased at some nurseries or online vendors, but growing this plant from seed is not recommended. Even attempting to root and establish seedlings is a tough task for even the most experienced gardener to tackle, as young sweetferns are known for being slow to adapt to new environments. The best way to add sweetfern shrubs to your garden lineup is to purchase a fully grown plant—and to be very gentle and careful with the roots during transplanting.
Garden Pests and Diseases of Sweetfern
One of the reasons that sweetfern is making a comeback in modern gardens is that it is very easy to care for once it gets going. It’s also deer resistant and has no known issues with garden pests or disease.
The only problems that gardeners have reported running into when caring for sweetfern plants have been due to poor drainage and oversaturation with moisture. If the shrub’s root system is constantly submerged in water, the plant will start to rot and deteriorate. If you notice that your sweetfern is sitting in soggy soil, you will need to amend the soil and aerate to improve the drainage in order to save your crop.
Videos About Sweetfern
This tutorial video for wildcrafting tea lovers shows you how to harvest and make tea from sweetfern shrubs that grow in the wild. Wildcrafting, or bushcrafting, is the art of harvesting and making new or experimental teas from plants that grow in the wild. Sweetfern is one of the more common plants that are made into tea by wildcrafters:
Wilderness survival experts have long touted the various edible, medicinal, and survival uses for sweetfern leaves. Michael Douglas (not the famous actor and father of Emilio Estevez and Charlie Sheen who starred in classic movies such as Primal Instinct, The Game and Falling Down, but the lesser-known naturalist and survivalist Michael Douglas who hosts the YouTube channel Primitive Skills) talks about sweetfern’s usefulness as a wild edible both due to its medicinal properties and because it can provide the essential nutrients one might need to consume in order to survive in the wild:
As sweetfern has long had a place in folk medicine, it’s no surprise that the plant also has a place in folk music. This bluegrass song from the album, A Proper Introduction to the Carter Family is called “Sweetfern,” and is one of a few Carter Family songs that features Mother Maybelle on the dobro: