Thursday, March 20, 2014

Sweetfern catkin season

Sweetfern bourbon redeemed, after a lip-puckering attempt at a Manhattan about a week ago. It was undrinkable, and went down the sink.

Sweetfern (Comptonia peregrina) has a distinct flavour and takes some work to pair successfully, in a drink. The vermouth was a mistake. A better combination was a light orange syrup, made by reducing freshly squeezed orange juice till almost sticky, then shaking it like mad with the sweetfern-infused bourbon.

A pleasingly brown drink, for the tail end of winter.

Hello, spring!

Quite soon, sweetfern catkins will appear. They are tender and very fragrant. If you have any growing nearby, start picking and experimenting. The catkins (and leaves) can be chopped very finely and turned into fresh rubs, or used whole to perfume slow-cooking, gamey meat. If I had smoker (hm...maybe I should get a small one) I could imagine smoking trout, or chicken breasts over the dried leaves.

They infuse alcohol quickly - strain them out after a week or two. Sweetfern bourbon  is very good added to hard apple cider, and to slugs of dry sparkling wine, to chicken liver mousses, and rabbit terrines. There is sweetfern gin, of course. And don't forget sweetfern syrup.

But that's just me. You might find another successful combination.

This shrub is an excellent indigenous herb but is little-known and under-appreciated. And not only edible, but is reputed to repel insects; I'm told that it actually works, by someone who used to rub the leaves on her horse's skin to deter stinging creatures on long sticky rides.

And since I have also been told recently that Harlem mosquitoes are bigger, bite harder and shoulder aside screen doors with more insouciance than anyone's else's in the city, perhaps I should encourage at least one sweetfern shrub on the terrace, and put the theory to the test.


  1. I see that it attracts butterflies and moths, so that sounds like a good shrub to have around.

    Nancy Mc

  2. and for mosquito repellent, do eat loads of onions

  3. Thank you Marie! I now have a good reason to hike up the mountain (Pa. sized so do not be impressed).
    I collected the leaves of this plant years ago to make Revolutionary Tea. I have forgotten all about it. You are an inspiration.

  4. I saw it once being used as a very satisfactory low understory on a sandy, shady bank in a formal garden. It is a nitrogen fixer, so if your property has an area where a contractor ran off with the topsoil, leaving you a cut bank of sand/clay on which nothing seems to grow, it is a useful plant.
    I didn't know that it was an edible plant, I'll have to try your ideas!


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