English Name—SHRUBBY SWEETFERN.
French Name—Comptonier odorant.
Officinal Names—Comptonia, Dulcifilix folia.
Vulgar Names—Sweet-fern, Sweet-bush, Sweet-ferry, Fern-bush, Fern-gale, Spleenwort-bush, &c.
Synonyms—Liquidambar peregrinum & L. asplenifolia of Linnasus. Myrica asplenifolia Gronovius.
Authorities—Linnaeus, Aiton, Michaux, Pursh, Schoepf, B. Barton, W. Barton, M. M. fig. 19, &c.
Genus COMPTONIA—Monoical, amentaceous—M. fl. in long cylindrical catkins, scales one flowered, perigone two-leaved, three forked stamina, six anthers. F. fl. in globular interior catkins, scales one flowered, perigone six leaved, one pistil, two styles, fruit ovate, evalve, one-seeded nut or achene.
Species C. ASPLENIFOLIA—Shrubby, leaves crowded, sessile, narrow lanceolate, alternately crenate-sinuate.
Description—A small shrub from two to five feet high, with many crooked branches and long horizontal roots—Leaves alternate, crowded, sessile, with two small oval acute stipules at the base, from three to five inches long, half an inch broad, acute at both ends, with a strong middle nerve; each side regularly sinuate by large equal obtuse lobules—Flowers appearing before the leaves; the male in many superior lateral and cylindrical catkins, the female inferior in a few globular or oval lateral catkins—scales of both catkins imbricated concave, reniform, acuminate, caducous and one flowered. Male flowers with a two-leaved perigone, shorter than the scales, each part equal and keeled. Six stamina or anthers, on three short forked filaments. Female flowers with a bristly perigone of six filiform persistent segments, longer than the scales. Pistil oval, two capillary styles. Seeds evalve oval nuts or achenes, compressed yellow, forming a round burr.
History—This pretty shrub forms by itself a solitary genus of the natural order AMENTACEOUS, dedicated by Solander and Aiton to Compton, an English bishop, and friend of Botany. It may be placed in MONOECIA triandria or hexandria or triadelphia!
It has been called Sweet-fern, owing to its singular leaves, similar to the Spleenwort fern, and having a pleasant spicy scent. It blossoms very early in March and April, before the leaves are unfolded.
Linnaeus had united it to Liquidambar or the sweet gum tree, and Gronovius before him to Myrica or wax shrub, which have a similar inflorescence.
Locality—From New England to Carolina, on hills and alluvial plains, in poor, rocky and sandy soils, forming vast glades in thin woods. Common both on the Allegheny mountains and the plains of New Jersey, &c. but nearly disappearing west of the mountains, and unknown to the western plains.
Qualities—The whole plant, but chiefly the leaves have a peculiar strong smell, of a sweet and balsamic nature; becoming stronger by pressing or bruising them. It contains the benzoic acid, tannin and a resinous substance. The taste is balsamic and pungent.
Properties—Astringent, tonic, calefacient, cephalic, balsamic, expectorant, &c. It possesses all the properties of the tonic and astringent balsams. Barton recommends it for diarrhea, loose bowels and the summer complaint of children, or cholera infantum, in the form of a weak decoction; but it is used in Pennsylvania and Virginia for many other diseases, such as all children's bowel complaints, (where it forms a grateful drink for them) in rhachitis, in debility, in fevers as a diluent tonic; in rheumatism and contusions it is less available. The root chewed stops blood-spitting, according to Schoepf. Upon the whole this shrub appears to be deserving of further attention, I have seen it employed throughout the country as a substitute or auxiliary to the more expensive balsams, in asthma, bronchitis, &c.
Substitutes—Storax—Tolu—Sassafras—Laurus benzoin—Agrimony—Mitchella repens—Gaultheria procumbens and all mild balsamic astringents.
Additions and corrections
24. COMPTONIA ASPLENIFOLIA—Other names Meadow fern and Astringent root. The root is styptic, and the Indians chew it for hemoptysis: they make a tea of the leaves for female complaints. The Herbalist, Whitlow, employs it for scrofula in his vapour baths. Other herbalists use the buds, blossoms or leaves simmered in cream or butter for the itch and sores. A syrup is also made with it.
Medical Flora, or Manual of the Medical Botany of the United States of North America, 1828, was written by C. S. Rafinesque.