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Comptonia peregrina

The new bay leaf?

"A rose by any other name would smell as sweet."

- William Shakespeare, 1597



Comptonia peregrina

Photo taken by author.

What's in a [common] name?

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, a misnomer is “a misapplied or inappropriate name or designation” which accurately describes the common name of the easily foraged plant in Massachusetts, Comptonia peregrina. Sweetfern, in my subjective opinion, is not particularly sweet and it is objectively not a fern. A more appropriate common name would be “Savory-shrub” as I’ve been using it to flavor a multitude of savory dishes this summer. 

Sweetfern is currently the only species in its genus, Comptonia. However, it didn’t achieve its current scientific name until the late 19th century. It was first confusingly described as two different species, Liquidambar peregrina and Myrica aspleniifolia, in Carl Linneaus’ Species Plantarum. French botanist Charles Louis L’Heritier de Brutelle, later renamed the genus ‘Myrica’ as Comptonia, and nearly 100 years after, American botanist John M. Coulter transferred the genus ‘Liquidambar’ to Comptonia and listed Comptonia aspleniifolia as synonymous. So after 250 years of botanical gameplay, we are left with one species, Comptonia peregrina, with somewhat versatile usage.

Description and Ecology

The common epithet is derived from the shape of its fragrant foliage. The fern-like leaves have an aroma reminiscent of pine trees, and when dried, take on, in my humble forager opinion, the smell of bay leaves. This deciduous shrub is found in deciduous and coniferous forests throughout the northeast and into Canada. While it can grow up to 4.5 feet tall (1.5 m), its leaves can be about 5 inches long. Its characteristic seeds grow at the end of branches in a burlike structure, commonly referred to as a nutlet. Ecologically, sweetferns are nitrogen-fixing plants and are found to be drought and salt tolerant. Furthermore, they can often be found growing in sites soon after both wild and prescribed fires.

Culinary Uses

Aromatics - Rub fresh leaves between your fingers and enjoy the aroma. Some people will toss leaves into a fire to create a forest smell. I have read that the smoke will deter mosquitos and insects (I have not tested this).

Tea - For a cold infusion, steep several fresh leaves in cold water for several hours, or over night. For a hot infusion, steep several fresh or dried leaves in boiling water for 5-8 minutes. This tea is slightly reminiscent of black tea, but has a different after taste. This is not my favorite use of sweetfern, but is enjoyable to some.

Soups/Meats - For any recipe that requires bay leaf, swap in sweetfern! This is my favorite use of the shrub. See recipe ideas below:

Desserts - Despite the fact that I spend a lot of time saying sweetfern isn't that sweet, here is a shortbread cookie recipe (that is definitely not as sweet as the average cookie, but is still delicious):

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