Sweetfern is not a fern but a short round shrub. It grows to be two to four feet high and four to eight feet wide. It is called sweetfern because the long, dark green leaves with deeply scalloped margins look similar to fern fronds. The foliage is fragrant when crushed, therefore “sweet.” It will colonize into dense patches on rocky uplands or in open woodlands. Sweetfern is monoecious, meaning that it has both female and male flowers on the same plant. These small flowers are catkins that bloom from April to early May. It develops a green, burr-like fruit with four edible nutlets in August. They are eaten by the northern flicker. Sweetfern is used for cover by the cottontail rabbit which, along with the white-tailed deer, browses the shrub during spring and winter.
Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center