Fire Effects Information System (FEIS)
FEIS Home Page

Index of Species Information

SPECIES:  Comptonia peregrina


SPECIES: Comptonia peregrina
AUTHORSHIP AND CITATION : Snyder, S. A. 1993. Comptonia peregrina. In: Fire Effects Information System, [Online]. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station, Fire Sciences Laboratory (Producer). Available: [].
ABBREVIATION : COMPER SYNONYMS : Myrica asplenifolia L. [20] SCS PLANT CODE : MYAS COMMON NAMES : sweetfern TAXONOMY : The currently accepted scientific name for sweetfern is Comptonia peregrina (L.) Coult. (Myricaceae). There are two varieties: Comptonia peregrina var. asplenifolia L. and Comptonia peregrina var. peregrina [10]. LIFE FORM : Shrub FEDERAL LEGAL STATUS : No special status OTHER STATUS : NO-ENTRY


SPECIES: Comptonia peregrina
GENERAL DISTRIBUTION : Sweetfern occurs from New Brunswick south through the New England states to the northern tip of Georgia and west through northern Illinois, Indiana, and the Great Lakes states to eastern Saskatchewan and North Dakota [8]. Comptonia peregrina var. asplenifolia occurs from Long Island, New York, south to Virginia [13]. ECOSYSTEMS : FRES10 White - red - jack pine FRES11 Spruce - fir FRES14 Oak - pine FRES18 Maple - beech - birch FRES19 Aspen - birch STATES : CT DE GA IL IN IA KY ME MD MA MI MN NH NJ NC ND OH PA RI SC TN VT VA WV WI MB NB NS ON PE PQ SK BLM PHYSIOGRAPHIC REGIONS : NO-ENTRY KUCHLER PLANT ASSOCIATIONS : K093 Great Lakes spruce - fir forest K095 Great Lakes pine forest K096 Northeastern spruce - fir forest K099 Maple - basswood forest K102 Beech - maple forest K103 Mixed mesophytic forest K104 Appalachian oak forest K108 Northern hardwoods - spruce forest K110 Northeastern oak - pine forest K111 Oak - hickory - pine forest SAF COVER TYPES : 1 Jack pine 5 Balsam fir 15 Red pine 16 Aspen 17 Pin cherry 18 Paper birch 19 Gray birch - red maple 20 White pine - northern red oak - red maple 21 Eastern white pine 25 Sugar maple - beech - yellow birch 28 Black cherry - maple 32 Red spruce 33 Red spruce - balsam fir 35 Paper birch - red spruce - balsam fir 43 Bear oak 45 Pitch pine 52 White oak - black oak - northern red oak 53 White oak 55 Northern red oak 107 White spruce 108 Red maple 109 Hawthorn 110 Black oak SRM (RANGELAND) COVER TYPES : NO-ENTRY HABITAT TYPES AND PLANT COMMUNITIES : Plant associates of sweetfern include prairie willow (Salix humilis), American hazel (Corylus americana), beaked hazel (C. coruta), serviceberry (Amelanchier spp.), hawthorn (Crataegus spp.), New Jersey tea (Ceanothus americanus), lowbush blueberry, bracken fern (Pteridium aquilinum), ricegrass (Oryzopsis spp.), hawkweed (Hieracium spp.), hairgrass (Deschampsia flexuosa), wintergreen (Gaultheria procumbens), goldenrod (Solidago spp.) sunflower (Helianthus spp.), coreopsis (Coreopsis spp.), yellow sedge (Carex pensylvanica), and little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) [1,2,13,30].


SPECIES: Comptonia peregrina
IMPORTANCE TO LIVESTOCK AND WILDLIFE : Sweetfern fruits are eaten by flickers [7]. It has limited use as food and cover for cottontail rabbits and ruffed grouse [23]. In Minnesota moose browse sweetfern in winter and spring, and white-tailed deer browse it in winter only [18]. In oak forests of Pennsylvania white-tailed deer browse sweetfern most heavily in winter and spring, somewhat during fall, and not at all during summer [6]. PALATABILITY : NO-ENTRY NUTRITIONAL VALUE : Food values for sweetfern have been listed [31]: Time/Place crude prot. crude fiber fat N-free extract March/Mich. 13.3% 22.1% 5.6% 55.7% Aug/Maine 9.7% 14.6% 6.5% 67.0% Winter/Maine 10.8% --- --- --- COVER VALUE : Prairie chickens and sharp-tailed grouse use sweetfern for nesting cover [14]. VALUE FOR REHABILITATION OF DISTURBED SITES : Because sweetfern fixes nitrogen and is drought tolerant, it is ideal for erosion control on dry sandy banks, sand dunes, along roads, or under powerlines [20,15,16]. Sweetfern colonized metal-contaminated soils near Sudbury, Ontario, 1 year following application of dolomite limestone [37]. OTHER USES AND VALUES : Sweetfern makes a good garden shrub because it maintains its 3- to 4-foot (1-1.3 m) height for a long time without pruning [16]. However, it is difficult to propagate, and balled and burlapped plants often do not survive. Plants are best started with root cuttings [16]. Leaves are used for potpourri, and tea made from the leaves has been used to relieve symptoms of dysentery [8,31]. OTHER MANAGEMENT CONSIDERATIONS : Sweetfern is a host to sweetfern blister rust (Cronartium comptoniae), which reduces growth of jack pine (Pinus banksiana) [12]. Following logging sweetfern was more abundant on sites where operations exposed bare mineral soil than on sites where slash was left [17]. Burning and disking following logging can stimulate the growth of sweetfern so that it forms dense patches. It can outcompete tree seedlings under such circumstances [3]. Lowbush blueberry (Vaccinium angustifolium, V. myrtilloides) stands are important for commercial crops in Canada and New England. Sweetfern can be a serious invader on these sites, but is also controlled easily with chemicals such as picloram, dicamba, and 2,4-D [13,38].


SPECIES: Comptonia peregrina
GENERAL BOTANICAL CHARACTERISTICS : Sweetfern is a low, deciduous, monoecious or dioecious shrub [10]. It is drought and salt tolerant. It grows from 1 to 4.5 feet (0.3-1.5 m) high and has fragrant, pubescent foliage [10]. The alternate, simple leaves are fernlike and 2.5 to 4.7 inches (6-12 cm) long [8,10,29]. The catkins are clustered at the ends of the branches and are 1.2 to 1.6 inches (3-4 cm) long [29]. Seeds grow in burlike heads, with four per fruit [31]. RAUNKIAER LIFE FORM : Phanerophyte Geophyte REGENERATION PROCESSES : Sweetfern reproduces by rhizomes and seed, although it is difficult to propagate by seed and some after-ripening may be necessary [13,15]. It spreads mainly by rhizomes, forming thickets in sun or partial shade [16]. Sweetfern matures sexually in 2 to 3 years [17]. Seeds can remain viable in the soil for as long as 70 years [7]. SITE CHARACTERISTICS : Sweetfern grows in openings in coniferous forests in well-drained, dry, acid, sandy or gravelly soils [7,16]. Because it fixes nitrogen, it does well on disturbed sites or sites with sterile soil, such as abandoned fields and pine barrens [31,36]. In the Adirondack Mountains of New York, it grows on limestone soils from 200 to 2,300 feet (61-700 m) elevation [20]. SUCCESSIONAL STATUS : Sweetfern is a shade intolerant invader of newly opened canopies and disturbed sites [17,22]. It appeared in early seral vegetation following logging of an old-growth eastern white pine (Pinus strobus) forest in Connecticut [7]. It has also invaded disturbed forests in central Canada [17]. SEASONAL DEVELOPMENT : In the upper Midwest sweetfern blossoms in April and May and fruits ripen in autumn. In Canada sweetfern blossoms from May through June and seeds mature from July through September [13]. In the northeastern United States seeds mature in August [31].


SPECIES: Comptonia peregrina
FIRE ECOLOGY OR ADAPTATIONS : Sweetfern colonizes newly burned sites primarily by sprouting from rhizomes [13]. POSTFIRE REGENERATION STRATEGY : Small shrub, adventitious-bud root crown Rhizomatous shrub, rhizome in soil Ground residual colonizer (on-site, initial community) FIRE REGIMES : Find fire regime information for the plant communities in which this species may occur by entering the species name in the FEIS home page under "Find Fire Regimes".


SPECIES: Comptonia peregrina
IMMEDIATE FIRE EFFECT ON PLANT : Fire can either reduce or increase the frequency of sweetfern [36]. DISCUSSION AND QUALIFICATION OF FIRE EFFECT : Plant composition was studied on the New Jersey Pine Barrens following both wildfire and prescribed burning [4]. Sweetfern was not present on the unburned control sites, but was found on burned sites the second and third postfire years. The control site had not been burned for more than 50 years. Two other sites were burned 14 years and 16 years following wildfire. Sweetfern was not found on the 14-year-old site, but did occur on the 16-year-old site the third postfire year [4]. Average frequencies of sweetfern were determined on pine barrens in Wisconsin. Two sites were subject to both wildfire and periodic controlled burning. Site One had not had wildfire for more than 4 decades. Frequency of sweetfern on unburned plots of this site averaged 49 percent, while frequency on burned plots averaged 22 percent. Site Two had not experienced wildfire for more than 3 decades. Average frequency of sweetfern on unburned plots of Site Two was 73 percent, while on burned plots it was 86 percent. No fire history was given for Site Three. Sweetfern average frequency at this site was 41 percent on unburned plots and 49 percent on burned plots. Sweetfern average frequency on Site Four, which had not had fire for 13 to 20 years, was 54 percent on unburned plots and 71 percent on burned plots [36]. Little bluestem stands in Connecticut, subject to periodic burning for more than a decade, showed a fourfold increase in sweetfern compared to control plots [25]. Sweetfern's presence seemed to enhance little bluestem growth, probably because of sweetfern's nitrogen-fixing ability. Burning and clipping blueberry (Vaccinium spp.) stands in Ontario resulted in increases of sweetfern (considered a weedy species under these circumstances) in summer and autumn [32]. Plots treated in spring showed only slight increases of sweetfern. PLANT RESPONSE TO FIRE : Sweetfern increases following fire [24,26,36]. In jack pine barrens of Ontario, it sprouted following fires that burned as hot as 932 degrees Fahrenheit (500 deg C) [33]. DISCUSSION AND QUALIFICATION OF PLANT RESPONSE : Following a May wildfire in northeastern Minnesota, sweetfern increased in percent cover from postfire year 1 through 4 on three burned sites, remained relatively unchanged in two burned sites, and showed slight increases on two burned sites [27]. Percent occurrence of sweetfern was determined for mixed conifer hardwood stands in northeastern Minnesota. On Site One the fire occurred in late April with little or no burning of the soil. Sweetfern increased from 23 percent occurrence during postfire year 3 to 43 percent during postfire year 14. On Site Two the fire burned in mid-July with little or no soil burned, but the fire was considered "hot." Sweetfern increased from 57 percent occurrence during postfire year 2 to 80 percent during postfire year 11 [19]. FIRE MANAGEMENT CONSIDERATIONS : NO-ENTRY

References for species: Comptonia peregrina

1. Abrams, Marc D.; Dickmann, Donald I. 1982. Early revegetation of clear-cut and burned jack pine sites in northern lower Michigan. Canadian Journal of Botany. 60: 946-954. [7238]
2. Alexander, Robert R.; Edminster, Carleton B. 1980. Management of ponderosa pine in even-aged stands in the Southwest. Res. Pap. RM-225. Fort Collins, CO: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Forest and Range Experiment Station. 11 p. [15585]
3. Bjorkbom, John C. 1972. Stand changes in the first ten years after seedbed preperation for paper birch. Res. Pap. NE-238. Upper Darby, PA: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Northeastern Forest Experiment Station. 10 p. [15618]
4. Boerner, Ralph E. J. 1981. Forest structure dynamics following wildfire and prescribed burning in the New Jersey Pine Barrens. The American Midland Naturalist. 105(2): 321-333. [8649]
5. Books, David J. 1972. Little Sioux Burn: year two. Naturalist. 23(3&4): 2-7. [11550]
6. Bramble, W. C.; Goddard, M. K. 1943. Seasonal browsing of woody plants by white-tailed deer in the bear oak forest type. Journal of Forestry. 41(7): 471-475. [3298]
7. Del Tredici, Peter. 1977. The buried seeds of Comptonia peregrina, the sweet fern. Bulletin of the Torrey Botanical Club. 104(3): 270-275. [21893]
8. Elias, Thomas S.; Dykeman, Peter A. 1982. Field guide to North American edible wild plants. [Place of publication unknown]: Outdoor Life Books. 286 p. [21103]
9. Eyre, F. H., ed. 1980. Forest cover types of the United States and Canada. Washington, DC: Society of American Foresters. 148 p. [905]
10. Fernald, Merritt Lyndon. 1950. Gray's manual of botany. [Corrections supplied by R. C. Rollins]. Portland, OR: Dioscorides Press. 1632 p. (Dudley, Theodore R., gen. ed.; Biosystematics, Floristic & Phylogeny Series; vol. 2) [14935]
11. Garrison, George A.; Bjugstad, Ardell J.; Duncan, Don A.; [and others]. 1977. Vegetation and environmental features of forest and range ecosystems. Agric. Handb. 475. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service. 68 p. [998]
12. Gross, Henry L.; Patton, Robert F.; Ek, Alan R. 1978. Reduced growth, cull, and mortality of jack pine associated with sweetfern rus cankers. Canadian Journal of Forest Research. 8: 47-53. [21895]
13. Hall, Ivan V.; Aalders, Lewis E.; Everett, C. Fred. 1976. The biology of Canadian weeds: 16. Comptonia peregrina (L.) Coult. Canadian Journal of Plant Science. 56: 147-156. [21894]
14. Hamerstrom, F. N., Jr. 1939. A study of Wisconsin prairie chicken and sharp-tailed grouse. Wilson Bulletin. 51(2): 105-120. [15808]
15. Havis, J. R.; Hamilton, W. W. 1974. Mortality rate studies of sweet fern ground cover transplants. American Nurseryman. January: 9-10, 79-82. [21896]
16. Hayward, Gordon. 1991. Sweet fern. Horticulture. 69(10): 80. [21890]
17. Hendrickson, O. Q. 1986. Invasion of clear-cuttings by the actinorhizal plant Comptonia peregrina. Canadian Journal of Forest Research. 16: 872-874. [21891]
18. Irwin, Larry L. 1985. Foods of moose, Alces alces, and white-tailed deer, Odocoileus virginianus, on a burn in boreal forest. Canadian Field-Naturalist. 99(2): 240-245. [4513]
19. Krefting, Laurits W.; Ahlgren, Clifford E. 1974. Small mammals and vegetation changes after fire in a mixed conifer-hardwood forest. Ecology. 55: 1391-1398. [9874]
20. Kudish, Michael. 1992. Adirondack upland flora: an ecological perspective. Saranac, NY: The Chauncy Press. 320 p. [19376]
21. Kuchler, A. W. 1964. Manual to accompany the map of potential vegetation of the conterminous United States. Special Publication No. 36. New York: American Geographical Society. 77 p. [1384]
22. MacLean, David A.; Wein, Ross W. 1977. Changes in understory vegetation with increasing stand age in New Brunswick forests: species composition, cover, biomass, and nutrients. Canadian Journal of Botany. 55: 2818-2831. [10106]
23. Martin, Alexander C.; Zim, Herbert S.; Nelson, Arnold L. 1951. American wildlife and plants. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc. 500 p. [4021]
24. Niering, William A. 1981. The role of fire management in altering ecosystems. In: Mooney, H. A.; Bonnicksen, T. M.; Christensen, N. L.; [and others], technical coordinators. Fire regimes and ecosystem properties: Proceedings of the conference; 1978 December 11-15; Honolulu, HI. Gen. Tech. Rep. WO-26. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service: 489-510. [5084]
25. Niering, William A.; Dreyer, Glenn D. 1989. Effects of prescribed burning on Andropogon scoparius in postagricultural grasslands in Connecticut. The American Midland Naturalist. 122: 88-102. [8768]
26. Ohmann, Lewis F.; Grigal, David F. 1977. Some individual plant biomass values from northeastern Minnesota. NC-227. St. Paul, MN: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, North Central Forest Experiment Station. 2 p. [8151]
27. Ohmann, Lewis F.; Grigal, David F. 1979. Early revegetation and nutrient dynamics following the 1971 Little Sioux Forest Fire in northeastern Minnesota. Forest Science Monograph 21. Bethesda, MD: The Society of American Foresters. 80 p. [6992]
28. Raunkiaer, C. 1934. The life forms of plants and statistical plant geography. Oxford: Clarendon Press. 632 p. [2843]
29. Roland, A. E. 1991. Coastal-plain plants in inland Nova Scotia. Rhodora. 93(875): 291-298. [16490]
30. Rudolf, Paul O. 1990. Pinus resinosa Ait. red pine. In: Burns, Russell M.; Honkala, Barbara H., technical coordinators. Silvics of North America. Volume 1. Conifers. Agric. Handb. 654. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service: 442-455. [13246]
31. Schemnitz, Sanford D. 1973. Sweetfern Comptonia peregrina (L.) Coult. In: Gill, J. D.: Healy, William M., eds. Shrubs and vines for Northeastern wildlife. Gen. Tech. Rep. NE-9. Upper Darby, PA: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Northeastern Forest Experiment Station: 138-139. [21892]
32. Smith, D. W.; Hilton, R. J. 1971. The comparative effects of pruning by burning or clipping on lowbush blueberries in northeastern Ontario. Journal of Applied Ecology. 8(3): 781-789. [9026]
33. Smith, David W.; Sparling, John H. 1966. The temperatures of surface fires in jack pine barrens. Canadian Journal of Botany. 44(10): 1285-1292. [9011]
34. Stanek, W.; State, D. [n.d.]. Equations predicting primary productivity (biomass) of trees, shrubs and lesser vegetation based on current literature. [Place of publication unknown]: Environment Canada, Forestry Service. 58 p. On file with: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Intermountain Research Station, Fire Sciences Laboratory, Missoula, MT. [20783]
35. Stickney, Peter F. 1989. Seral origin of species originating in northern Rocky Mountain forests. Unpublished draft on file at: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Intermountain Research Station, Fire Sciences Laboratory, Missoula, MT; RWU 4403 files. 10 p. [20090]
36. Vogl, Richard J. 1971. Fire and the northern Wisconsin pine barrens. In: Proceedings, annual Tall Timbers Fire ecology conference; 1970 August 20-21; New Brunsick, Canada. No. 10. Tallahassee, FL: Tall Timbers Research Station: 175-209. [2432]
37. Winterhalder, Keith. 1990. The trigger-factor approach to the initiation of natural regeneration of plant communities on industrially-damaged lands at Sudbury, Ontario. In: Hughes, H. Glenn; Bonnicksen, Thomas M., eds. Restoration '89: the new management challenge: Proceedings, 1st annual meeting of the Society for Ecological Restoration; 1989 January 16-20; Oakland, CA. Madison, WI: The University of Wisconsin Arboretum, Society for Ecological Restoration: 215-226. [14697]
38. Yarborough, David E.; Bhowmik, Prasanta C. 1986. Effect of hexazinone on weeds and on lowbush blueberries in Maine. In: Proceedings of the 40th Annual Meeting of the Northeastern Weed Science Society; [Date of conference unknown]; [Location of conference unknown]. [Place of publication unknown]. [Publisher unknown]. 165-166. [9902]

FEIS Home Page