For years, my mother told us that marijuana grew in the roadside ditches in Burnett County. She pointed out a low, dark-green shrub in the sunny areas alongside the roads. “See?” she’d say with triumph and mischief in her voice. “Marijuana!”
We believed her. But after we bought the cabin from my parents and started spending more time in northwestern Wisconsin, critical thinking skills started to kick in. Really? Marijuana? And by the way, my mother never tried to smoke it.
I discovered that the low shrub is a native plant called sweet fern (Comptonia peregrina) and not only is it NOT marijuana, it’s not even a fern. Below are photos of the two plants: first marijuana (courtesy of Commons Wikipedia) and then sweet fern.
You can see a vague resemblance.
I discovered sweet fern is related to wax myrtle and bayberry, plants with fragrant leaves, and sweet fern’s fragrance is reason alone to try growing it. It thrives in -- you guessed it -- nutrient-poor soil like ours, and one reason it can survive here is because it can fix nitrogen. I think of legumes when I think of nitrogen-fixers, but sweet fern uses a different bacteria than legumes use to turn atmospheric nitrogen into a usable form of nitrogen for itself and everybody else in its immediate neighborhood. In other words, sweet fern enriches the soil around it.
I didn’t know any of that when I decided I had to have sweet fern in my cabin yard. I just liked the look of it – kind of prehistoric (plus, it had the marijuana back story). Now I have two sweet fern plants, both purchased from Out Back Nursery near Hastings, MN. I planted them on the north side of our cabin, which is the sunny side. A couple shots of it:
Actually our land is adjacent to county land, and I planted the sweet fern plants just across the line on county land. I figure I have now increased the value of public land, but I doubt my act of generosity will prompt the county to show its gratitude by lowering our taxes.
For the most part, I’m just hoping the plants will grow big and strong and lead a quiet, shrubby life. They might need luck as well as adequate rain and all the usual things plants. need because life is hazardous here. A few years ago, the county foresters brought in a bobcat to cut down a few dead trees that were in danger of falling on our cabin. In the process, their bobcat squashed my (their?) sweet fern flat, but the plant came back the next spring, no problem.
Here’s a link to the Out Back Nursery. http://www.outbacknursery.com/index.htm
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