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Native Shrubs in Wildlife Landscaping

Sweet Fern Sweet Fern

Good Food and Cover

Sweet Fern (Fern Bush) Comptonia peregrina

Form:
Low (1 to 3 feet), open-branched plant with fern-like appearance sometimes forming dense stand.

Twigs and Bark:
Twigs slender, slightly zig-zag, brown to purplish and usually more or less hairy; no terminal bud; lateral buds very small. Breaking of stems releases distinctive fragrant odor.

Leaves:
Deciduous, alternate, simple. Linear and notched-thus appearing like a row of rounded triangles held in line by the midrib. Aromatic when crushed, upper surface dark green, both surfaces sprinkled with tiny yellowish dots.

Flowers:
Tiny and inconspicuous (April-June).

Fruit:
A beaked nutlet held between two thickened bractlets; about ½ long, (Sept.-Oct.).

WV Range:
Intermountain valleys of Greenbrier, Hampshire, Hardy, Pendleton, and Pocahontas.

Natural Habitat:
Dry, especially sandy or rocky soil of woodlands. Often a pioneer species on burned-over areas, pastures and old dry, sandy fields.

Wildlife Use:
Foliage is one food source of apple sphinx caterpillar, Sphinx gordius. Foliage and stems consumed by rabbits and deer with winter browsing by deer most commonly reported usage. Buds and catkins are occasional winter food of grouse. Sweetfern provides valuable cover for small wildlife and ground-dwelling birds where it is common.

Horticulture:
Because of its restricted natural soil preferences Sweet Fern could be difficult to establish on the heavy clay soils of central and southern West Virginia . Select as loose, well-drained site as possible. Transplant only dormant plants and do not allow roots to dry out; prune all catkins. Burning a pile of brush on selected site could be beneficial in eliminating weed seeds and releasing minerals.

Uses: Low border, ground cover for dry, sterile soils.

Light: Partial shade to full sunlight.

Soil Moisture: Dry, well-drained, sterile, sandy soils.

Soil pH: Acid. Problems: Sweet Fern is the alternate host of sweetfern blister rust (Cronartium comptoniae) which can infect all hard pines.

Compiled by: Emily K. Grafton, botanist and environmental educator, Morgantown , West Virginia .

Written by West Virginia Native Plant Society members and jointly published with the WV Wildlife Diversity Program.


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