Comptonia Asplenifolia. Sweet-Fern.

Botanical name: 

Table 19. Comptonia asplenifolia. Sweet-Ferry. Sweet Fern-bush. Spleenwort-leaved gale. Shrubby Sweet-Fern.

Germ. Streifenfarrenblättrige Comptonia. (Willd.)

Comptonia asplenifolia.
Ait. Kew. 3. p. 334.
Syst. Veg. 860.
Sp. Pl. 1418.
Willd. Sp. Pl. 4. p. 320.
Pursh. Am. Sep. 2. p. 635.
Mich. Am. 2. p. 203.
Duham. Arb. 1. p. 366.
Hort. Cliff. 456. Gron. Virg. 153.
Cold. Noveb. 224.
Petiv. Mus. 775.
Pluk. Aim. 250. t. 100. f. 67.
Houttuyn Lin. Pfl. Syst. 2. p. 346.
Coxe. Disp. 3d ed. p. 399.
Big. Floru. Bost. p. 219.
Bart. Pr. Fl. Ph p. 88.
Shoepf. Mat. Med. Am. p. 141.
Amoen. Acad. 4. p. 522.
Barton's Collec. part 1. p. 10.


Gen. Plant. ed. Schreb. n. 1764.
Masculi: Amentum. Cal. squama. Cor. 2-petala. Fil. bifurca.
Feminei: Amentum. Cal. squama. Cor. hexapetala. Styli 2. Mux ovate.

Nat. Syst. Juss. Amentaceae. Classis XV. Ordo IV.
Nat. Ord. Linnaei. Amentaceae.
Classis Monoicia. Ordo Triandria.

Gen. Ch. Male foivers. Catkin cylindrical; loosely imbricated all round with concave, kidney-shaped, acuminate, caducous, one-flowered scales. Cal. Perianth two-leaved; leaves equal, boat-shaped, shorter than the scale. Cor. none. Stam. Filaments three, shorter than the calix, forked; anthers six, two-valved. Female Jlowers. Catkin egg-shaped, closely imbricated with scales similar to those of the male. r Cal. Perianth six-leaved; leaves opposite, in pairs, filiform, membranous at the base, many times longer than the scale. Cor. none. Pist. Germ roundish; styles two, capillary. Penc. none, Seed Nut-oval, one celled, without valves.

Ess. Ch. Male flowers in a catkin. Calix two-leaved. Corolla none. Anthers forked. Female flowers in a catkin. Calix six leaved. Corolla none. Styles two. Nut oval.

Comptonia asplenifolia, foliis longo-linearibus alternatim crenato-pinnatifidis. Willd. et Pursh.


Liquidambar peregrinum. Syst. Veg. 860.
Liquidambar asplenifolium. Sp. Pl. 1418.
Myrica. Gron. Virg. 155. Cold. Noveb. 224.
Gale Mariana asplenii folia. Petiv. Mus. 773.

Descriptio Uberior.

Frutex 3-ped. Caules fructicosi, ramosi, hirti. Folia longo-lanceolata, profunde alternato-sinuata. Ament. Mas. laterales, erecti, seu sub-arcuati. Ament. foemin. rubr. Nux ossea, lenticularis, nuda, obsolete striata, nitida. Habitat in sylvis, florens Martio et initio Aprilis. B.

The only North American species of a genus, dedicated by Dr. Solander to the Right Rev. Henry Compton, Lord Bishop of London. It is a shrubby plant, having leaves resembling the Asplenium or Spleen-wort, and hence the specific name. It is much branched, and attains the height of two, and from that to three, very seldom four feet. The stems are slender, branched, somewhat hairy, and are crowded with a profusion of lanceolate leaves, about three or four inches long, and half an inch broad; deeply cut into roundish notches, down nearly to the middle-rib. The male catkins are about an inch or an inch and a quarter long, lateral, sometimes erect, but most frequently horizontally curved, as represented in the plate. The female catkins are situated lower on the stems than the male, and seldom exceed half an inch in length; are ovate, of a red colour.

The fertile flowers produce little nuts of an ovate shape, flattened and margined at the base, obscurely striped, of a shining yellowish colour at the top, and nearly white towards the bottom. These nuts are sessile, and nearly concealed by the persistent segments of the corolla, which by this time are elongated and crowded, and gives to the fruit the appearance of a burr. The root is ligneous, long, and horizontal, and often extending to the length of three or four feet.

The whole plant is possessed of a strong, peculiar, resinous, and spicy scent, particularly observable when the leaves are bruised or pressed in the hand, or between the fingers.

The Sweet-fern is very common throughout the United States, Bosc remarks, that in Carolina the branches generally died at the end of the third year, the new wood then succeeding to the old, as in the rubi; and that it was also seldom found in fruit, though it flowered abundantly. The latter circumstance 1 have observed as regards the plant in this neighbourhood, where it is abundantly found, particularly on the high woody banks of Wissahickon creek, and in woods, and along their margins, in Jersey. It flowers very early in April, or the last of March; and unless sought for at this early season, will seldom be found flowering; that state of the plant continuing but a very short period.

Under the names of Sweet-fern, and Sweet-ferry, this shrub is brought in great quantities to our market, particularly by the country people, who put it up in large bunches which are sold for a few cents. My enquiries in the market for two or three years past, result in the belief that the Sweet-fern is much used, medicinally, in family practice. It is always for this purpose that it is purchased.

Medical Properties.

Sweet-fern has been introduced into this work, principally because it is so much used in domestic practice. It is an astringent and tonic, and hence its usefulness in diarrhoea; for it is in this disease that it is so much employed. I frequently used it in my practice last summer, in the form of a weak decoction. It is relied on almost exclusively, by many persons, for the cure of cholera infantum; but from my trials of the plant in looseness of the bowels, in children, I do not think it ought to be so much depended on; though I have known instances in which, aided by proper regimen, it effected a cure. The decoction sweetened, forms an extremely grateful drink for children in the summer complaint; and from its moderate astringency, and bracing and tonic effect on the bowels, it will always be found to be an useful auxiliary in the treatment of this disease. I gave it last summer to one of my children, in this complaint, and with encouraging success. The other virtues ascribed to it by Shoepf, are not, perhaps, entitled to much consideration. ["Infusum foliorum in rhachidite, debilitate febrili, utile. Radix masticata sanguinem sistit. Colden." Shoepf. Mat. Med, p. 142. ] Neither is the common practice in Jersey, of using the decoction as a fomentation in rheumatism and contusions, likely to result in much relief.

Table XIX.

Fig. 1. Represents a flowering twig of Comptonia asplenifolia, culled in April. At this time the dead leaves of the preceding year are frequently found on the stems; and the buds of the new leaves, only begin to appear. The long aments are the male, the short red ones, the female.
2. A branch of the plant in fruit, with the perfect leaves.
3. A stipule.
4. A collection of nuts cleared of the surrounding investment.
5. A single nut.
(All of the natural size.)

Vegetable Materia Medica of the U.S. or Medical Botany, 1817 (Vol. I), 1818 (Vol. II), was written by William P. C. Barton, M. D.