Wild Edibles: Sweet Fern

Perhaps after a few days in the woods you’re getting a little tired of the Peppermint Tea that you packed for your canoe trip and are looking for some variety, or you just like to sample from what nature has to offer.  One of my personal favorite beverages (herbal infusions) in the wild is steeped Sweet Fern leaves.   This time of year is best as the leaves have already dried on the plant so the flavour, when steeped, comes out immediately, and they are easy to harvest.

Sweet Fern (Comptonia peregrina) is a deciduous shrub with fern-like leaves that reaches about 2-3 feet high (the Peterson Field Guide to Edible Plants describes it as 3-5 ft tall although I have personally never seen it grow that tall in my region).  It grows best in dry soil so you will tend to find it growing right along side blueberries and service berries.  The autumn is the best time to harvest Sweet Fern as the leaves have dried on the plant and are easily picked.  Just grasp the stem gently and drag your grip up the stem pulling the leaves off.  You can have enough leaves for several pots in a matter of seconds.  Stuff the leaves into a zip-lock bag and take it back to camp.

For a quick look at how easy these leaves are to collect have a look at my very short youtube video.

Preparation is easy.  Bring a pot of water to a boil and remove from heat.  Place a handful of dried leaves into the water and allow to steep for 3-4 minutes and serve.  I generally pour using the pot lid as a strainer, either that or you can just pick the leaves out of your teeth later (it’s camping, no one’s looking).

Yes, earlier in the season you can harvest the green leaves.  While camping I might dry the green leaves briefly over the fire so that the flavour is more potent once steeped, but you can use the green leaves fresh as well.

Here are two great resources to bring on your hikes to help you with plant identification:
•    Forest Plants of Central Ontario; Lone Pine Publishing
•    Peterson Field Guides – Edible Wild Plants, Eastern/Central North America

As with any wild plant:

  • harvest/consume only those that you can identify positively
  • when in doubt ask an expert in the area
  • Learn to distinguish from any similar poisonous plant (if applicable)
  • Sample sparingly at first to gauge individual sensitivities/allergies
  • Understand which parts of which plants may be consumed as many edible plants have toxic parts/structures
  • Harvest only when/where abundant
  • Do not harvest plants that are endangered or in need of protection

Happy trails!