Sweet Fern has been long forgotten by modern medicine and even herbalists seldom use it. I find Sweet fern to be one of my most important aromatic, astringent herbs with incredible medicinal benefits.
I use Sweet fern in my medicine making for conditions of the skin. In cases of advanced poison ivy, oak or sumac rash, there is no other plant to compare with the trusted effects of Sweet Fern. Although Jewelweed is known as the antidote for poison ivy, I believe jewelweed is best used at the onset or before the rash appears. Sweet Fern is used when the rash is already present and well established.
“Sweet fern is a good remedy for poison ivy. Once I found myself blistering up. Though I caught it elsewhere, just then I was at Sunstone Herb Farm, in Ulster County, New York. There wasn’t a lot around but white pine and comptonia. The poison ivy was gone in twelve hours.”
– Matthew Wood The Earthwise Herbal
I have not yet had the opportunity to experiment with sweet fern on the hog weed rash, but I have used it on a wild parsley rash with great success. I had tried Jewelweed many years ago on hog weed rash with no success at all, in fact it made the rash worse. I am quite sure sweet fern would be effective and I look forward to trying it in the future.
I find nothing better than Sweet Fern for strong reactions to bug bites; mosquito, black fly and spider bites. For itchy, red, inflamed and open rashes caused by the scratching of bites (and poison ivy), I mix sweet fern with plantain leaf to make a wonderful Bite and Itch cream. I find applying these plants in the form of a cream to be more useful than a compress from the tea or decoction. The thick consistency of the cream allows the plant medicine to stay on the area, relieving the itchiness and inflammation. I have had many mothers report back to me about how wonderful this plant preparation solved the rash on their child quickly and more efficiently than anything else they had ever used. Using Sweet Fern together with Plantain as a fresh poultice would be wonderfully effective as well.
I have also been experimenting with Sweet fern on acne. I was visited by a woman who asked if I had anything for her sons acne. I did not have a product specific for that but suggested she try my Bite and Itch cream. She came back a few weeks later to my market booth raving to people walking past about the wonders of my products. She explained that the cream first made the acne worse, bringing it to the surface. They continued to apply the cream and found that it resolved the acne within a week. I have used it in the same way with my teenage son. I find it does not completely resolve the acne. It must be applied daily and when used this way it greatly reduces the boils, redness and inflammation. The acne becomes less noticeable; it is subdued and kept under control. Diet must be addressed with acne, and I find using a topical treatment like Sweet fern along with daily intake of dark leafy greens, probiotics, burdock infusions and fish oil as a supplement to be the best approach to treating acne. Drinking Sweet fern tea would be of great benefit as well.
Latin name: Comptonia peregrina and Comptonia asplenifolia
Botanical family: Myricacea, Bayberry family
Common names: Sweet fern, meadow fern, sweet bush, fern gale, sweet ferry, spleenwort
Plant Properties: tonic, astringent, digestive tonic, immune tonic, lymphatic tonic, nutritive (Wood), anti-inflammatory, emollient, antibacterial, antiviral, anti fungal, anti-tumor, anaphylactic, antimutagenic, choleric, bronchodilator, free radical scavenger, inhibits insulin degradation and has slight muscle relaxing properties as well. (Hoffman: tannins)
Sweet Fern contains a fair amount of tannins which account for its astringency and many medicinal actions.
Applications of Tannins: taken from Medical Herbalism – The Science and Practise of Herbal Medicine, David Hoffman
- protect inflamed mucous membranes
- Exert a drying effect on mucous membranes, reducing hypersecretion
- Reduce inflammation and swelling accompanied by infection
- Prevent bleeding from small wounds
- Reduce uterine bleeding
- Relieve symptoms of diarrhea or dysentry through binding effects in the gut
- Used externally for astringent action in douches, snuffs and eyewashes
Energetics: aromatic, astringent, spicy, warming, stimulant, drying, bitter, slightly sweet (Woods p. 125)
Plant Uses: Poison ivy, oak and sumac, eczema, sprains, swellings, inflammation. Matthew Wood recommends Sweet Fern for lymphatic swellings, diarrhea, poor digestion, weakened immunity, emaciation and poor bone development and worms. Indications for use he states are; black rings under the eyes and sunken eyes. (Wood p.125, 126)
Harvesting Sweet Fern
When to harvest: Sweet Fern can be harvested during the summer and autumn months. I harvest Sweet fern in the later part of the summer time.
Parts Used: leaves, bark, roots, berries, cones and stems are all used for medicine and food.
Plant Preparations: water infusion (tea), decoction, poultice, compress, oil infusion, tincture, leaves dried and powdered.
History of Use
Sweet fern was one of the most significant plants used by the First Nations people’s in the Eastern Woodlands. (Woods p. 124) who employed it extensively as a remedy (decoction) for diarrhea, flu and stomach cramping, worms, headaches and inflammation. Externally Comptonia was used for poison ivy, oak and sumac, eczema and other skin rashes, insect bites and as an insect repellent. It was also used as a poultice or decoction for sprains, wounds, inflammation and swellings. (McKinnon p. 150)
“John Munroe (1824) who studied with an Indian medicine man, cited sweet fern as a remedy for worms. Wood and Ruddock (1916) write that it is ‘a prompt and efficacious remedy for expelling the tape worm. A pint of the decoction is to be taken in frequent doses during the day, for four to five days, when it is followed by a cathartic.” –Wood p.125
The Ojibwe peoples also used Sweet Fern to line and cover their baskets when picking berries to help preserve them. The aromatic qualities of comptonia were used in steam baths, as incense and as a bug repellent.
Sweet Fern was taken up as a medicine by the early settlers and did enter the U.S. Pharmocopoeia.
“The leaves and shoots are fragrant, and mildly tonic–rather of the order of aromatic stimulants, and leaving a slight astringent impression upon the mucous membranes. They very gently promote digestion, especially in convalescence from acute forms of disease … Boiling in an open vessel injures its soothing properties, and obtains more of its astringency.” – The King’s Physiomedical Dispensatory by William Cook, 1869, Comptonia asplenifolia p.307
- No cautions or contraindications noted.
Identification: A native plant to Canada and the USA, found in the Eastern Woodlands from Ontario to Newfoundland. Sweet Fern is a low growing, deciduous shrub reaching heights of 1.5 meters tall.
Leaves and Stems: Aromatic, fern-like leaves, alternate blades with rounded lobes growing up to 15cm long. The leaves are dark green and sometimes glossy. The underside of the leaves are lighter green than the tops and slightly hairy. There are distinguishing marks on the underside of the leaves which help to identify the plant. Stems are woody, dark reddish-brown with white hairs. The stems are sometimes quite red where they connect to the leaf.
Flowers/Cones: Pendulous Catkins, Male catkins are large; up to 5cm long and female catkins are small; up to 5mm long. An individual plant will have both male and female catkins. (MacKinnon)
Seeds: Nutlets, 2.5-5.5mm long with four glossy seeds.(MacKinnon)
Habitat: You can find Sweet Fern growing on sandy slopes and hill sides, rocky soil, edges of woods and forest paths, road sides, open wood lots and meadows.
Environmental Status: Comptonia peregrina and Comptonia asplenifolia are considered secure species in Canada.
Reflections on Sweet Fern
Sweet Fern is an excellent herb to consider using in cases where an astringent is called for. I have been using it powdered in applesauce and in smoothies to help heal Leaky Gut Syndrome. Sweet Fern makes a delightful, aromatic tea. If you find Sweet Fern too drying, try adding a pinch of marshmallow root or violet leaf and flower to moisten the astringency of the Sweet Fern.
- Hutchens, Alma R. Indian Herbology of North America. Merco, Windsor, Ontario.1973. Library Catalog Number: 615.321.RS 164
- MacKinnon, Andrew, Kershaw, Linda, Arnason, John, Owen, Patrick, Karst, Amanda, Hamersly Chambers, Fiona.
- Edible and Medicinal Plants of Canada. Partners Publishing and Lone Pine Media Productions (B.C.) Ltd. 2014. ISBN: 978-1-77213-002-7
- Weiner, Michael A. Earth Medicine- Earth Foods, Plant Remedies, Drugs and Natural Foods of the North American Indians. Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc, New York, New York. 1972. Library of Congress Number: 73-167802
- Wood, Matthew. The Earthwise Herbal A Complete Guide to New World Medicinal Plants. North Atlantic Books, Berkeley, California. 2009. ISBN: 978-1-55643-779-3
- botanical.com – A Modern Herbal by Mrs. M. Grieve