Despite Its Common Name, Sweetfern Isn’t

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It’s not every day you find a new flavor. There was a summer lake, surrounded by Northeastern woods. The dry edges of the dirt road that led us to swim in the lake were textured with low bushes, their slender leaves indented like ferns. When I rubbed them, I smelled it for the first time. Sweetfern. A strong, new scent.

A year went by. But I remembered that fragrance under the trees when I spotted the same plants at Brooklyn Bridge Park. This good smell had to belong to something edible. I began to read.

There were almost no references to Comptonia peregrina being used in a culinary context. Sweetfern is indigenous up and down the East Coast and west of the Great Divide. It was well known to Native Americans who used it medicinally as an anti-itch treatment, an inhalant to clear the lungs, a diarrhea remedy and as a smudge to repel mosquitoes or aid in religious ceremonies. There was one tantalizing mention of “seasoning” with no elaboration, bland instructions for tea making and a tidbit about nibbling the spine-encased green fruit.

And so my Sweetfern Experiments started in 2011, beginning with bourbon (when in doubt, infuse). For the American herb I chose an American booze, which, when strained later, smelled spicily good. Sweetfern bourbon works well with hard apple cider, dry sparkling wine (if you have sweetened the bourbon) and orange-inflected reductions, bitters and liqueurs.

Then I added the sweetfern bourbon to a chicken liver mousse, and a world of food-pairing possibilities lit up.

Despite its common name, sweetfern isn’t. A fern, that is. It is a shrub, and is related to another powerfully fragrant local plant, northern bayberry (Myrica pensylvanica); both belong to the Myricaceae family. Sweetfern grows in poor, dry, acidic soils, teaming up with bacteria to fix atmospheric nitrogen, a feat for which only legumes usually receive the credit.

It is listed as either threatened or endangered in at least four states west of us, but New York populations are secure—their colonies can be prolific. In the city, you are likely to find sweetfern growing only in highly managed urban sites like Brooklyn Bridge Park, and at some enlightened nurseries. I bought my specimens at The Gowanus Nursery (no longer in Gowanus but on Columbia Street, in Red Hook). They are now part of my herb collection, growing near my acid-loving blueberries. Unless you have access to sustainable sources, I recommend growing your own.

Sweetfern is useful through fall, when I have added the mature, darkening leaves to braised duck legs, tucking the herb well under the meat in a Dutch oven so that the moisture keeps it from drying.

That chicken liver mousse was good—raw livers and egg yolks blended with cream, butter and sweetfern bourbon before being poached in a bain marie. It was served with toasted sourdough and a chutney of field garlic. A rabbit terrine followed, herbal with sweetfern and eastern red cedar berries.

In early spring, catkins—pendant ower clusters—appear on male plants. They are tender and very aromatic. Chop them finely and turn them into fresh rubs, or use them to perfume slow-cooked, gamey meats like duck legs and venison. If you have a smoker, use the fragrant smoke to flavor trout, or duck breasts.

The catkins infuse alcohol quickly—strain them out after a week or the liquor becomes too tannic. Apart from bourbon there is sweetfern gin, of course, as the juniper-affinity is strong. For a woodsy syrup, combine boiled sugar and water with the catkins and infuse. Lately, for me, sweetfern has been making an appearance in my Northeast-informed vermouth.

In late spring, when the sweetfern and bayberry leaves are tender, I mix them with field garlic bulbs and ground lamb, for local spring meatballs. (If you have some Japanese knotweed tips sitting around, those make a creamily tart backdrop for the meat and herbs, added to the pan in the last five minutes of cooking.)

Summer brings a June barbecue ritual: butterflied leg of lamb marinated in sour cream and sweetfern and cooked over sweetfern branches (a metal bucket upended over the meat on the charcoal grill is a primitively effective smoker). A compound butter of the leaves is delicious basted onto an oven-roast rack of lamb (the butter freezes well, too). In late summer the female plants produce green burr-like fruit; children love the nuts inside them.

Sweetfern is useful through fall, when I have added the mature, darkening leaves to braised duck legs, tucking the herb well under the meat in a Dutch oven so that the moisture keeps it from drying. The aroma infuses the fat and informs the subsequent pan sauce. Yes, use the sweetfern bourbon to deglaze.

Soon, there will be sweetfern dipping salt for the quails’ eggs that accompany my wild foods walks, and sweetfern sugar for frosting cocktail glasses. And this year I will ferment the catkins for a wild herb fizz.

My herbal adventure has not ended, and I hope yours is about to begin. This unassuming and overlooked native plant deserves re-discovery.

Marie Viljoen

Marie Viljoen lives in Brooklyn and believes in food, flowers and plants you can eat (and drink). Join her on a seasonal forage walk or find her daily posts on Instagram @66squarefeet


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