Sweet fern is easier to grow from rhizomes than from seeds

Sweet fern seeds (photo by Lee Reich)

Did the cheery-looking box of Mickey Mouse adhesive bandages that my friend Bill handed me actually contain adhesive bandages? No. Instead, fuzzy green buds spilled out. An illicit drug? No again. Those “buds” were sweet fern seeds, which Bill suggested planting.

Sweet fern (Comptonia peregrina) is a native plant, one of my favorites, valued for its resinous aroma. That aroma always transports me in time back to summer days hiking in the White Mountains along sunny dirt roads lined with sweet fern when I was nine years old.

Poor (but well-drained) soil and hot afternoon sun bring out the best in sweet fern. The plant makes do in poor soil by getting its nitrogen from the air with the help of a symbiotic microorganism.

Sweet fern is attractive, even if it lacks the flamboyance of showy flowers or colorful leaves. Picture clumps of three-foot-high stems clothed in dark green fernlike leaves – “fernlike” because sweet fern is not in fact a fern, but a member of the myrtle family, along with bayberry.

So, yes, Bill, I would like to grow sweet fern. But I have reservations about starting it from seed. The seed retains its viability for decades, but sprouts only after jumping through a few hoops. Old seeds that have been lying dormant in the soil, perhaps for decades, sprout readily. Over time, their seedcoats have been softened, chemical inhibitors have been leached away and a spate of cool weather has reassured them that winter is past and it’s safe to sprout.

To get seeds to sprout in a more reasonable time, the seedcoats need to be scarified, or made permeable. Nicking the seed with a wire cutter, rubbing it with sandpaper or soaking it in sulfuric acid will do the trick, but care must be taken to avoid damage. Mixing the seeds with moist potting soil and refrigerating it for a month or two gives it the chilling required. After that, greatest success in germination comes with soaking the seed in a solution of gibberellic acid, a plant hormone.

You know what? I’m not going to bother with the seeds. Sweet fern is easily propagated from rhizome (rootlike subterranean stem) cuttings – as long as I can find someone with sweet fern who will let me take a few cuttings. All that’s needed is to dig up some of the shallow, horizontal rhizomes, cut them into two-to-four-inch lengths (the longer pieces for the thinner rhizomes) and set them a half-inch deep in a mix of equal parts peat and sand or peat and perlite or just vermiculite. New roots and shoots will develop, and this summer I could imagine that I am again walking along again in my white tee-shirt with a pack on my back, canteen at my side and Keds on my feet, wafting in that delicious aroma from along a sun-parched road.

Much, much easier to grow from seeds than sweet ferns are peas. If I can only get out in the garden to plant them! The time to sow peas around here is April 1, but – as I write this on March 19 – night temperatures are in the teens and the garden sleeps beneath a blanket of snow.

St. Patrick’s Day, contrary to popular notion, is not the right time to sow peas around here, or in many other places. It depends where you garden. That’s probably the right date for sowing peas in Ireland and in South Carolina, but it’s too late in Florida and too early here.

The reason to rush peas into the ground as soon as possible is because the bearing plants don’t like hot weather. The earlier they get into the ground, the sooner they begin to bear. Once weather turns torrid, I pull the peas out and plant bush beans, fall cabbage or some other vegetable where they stood.

The reason I don’t plant peas on St. Patrick’s Day is because, first of all, it would be hard to plant in usually frozen ground. Also, peas don’t germinate until soil temperatures hit 40 degrees Fahrenheit. If they just sit in cold, moist soil without sprouting, they’re apt to rot.

No need to twiddle my thumbs waiting for the soil to warm. Sprinkling some wood ash on the garden should hasten soil warming. The ashes hasten disappearance of the snowy blanket both from a “salt” effect (from the mineral salts, not sodium chloride, in the wood ash) and from their dark color.

Wood ash also helps nourish garden soils, making the soil less acidic and adding potassium and a slew of micronutrients. But restraint is needed to avoid too much of a good thing. Excess potassium or alkalinity ends up feeding plants an imbalance of nutrients.

The mere that dusting I spread yesterday has begun its work, already pitting the surface to look like a miniature range of jagged mountain peaks.

Any gardening questions? E-mail Lee at [email protected] and he’ll try answering them directly or in his Almanac Weekly column. To read Lee’s previous “Gardener’s Notebook” columns, go to www.HudsonValleyAlmanacWeekly.com. You can also visit Lee’s garden at www.leereich.blogspot.com and check out his instructional videos at www.youtube.com/leereichfarmden. For more on local homes and gardens, go to Ulster Publishing’s www.HomeHudsonValley.com.

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