Whenever I drive to my mother’s house in New Hampshire, I think that her portion of the state is held together by sweetfern, which lines her dirt road and invades parts of the large sand and gravel pit nearby.

Sweetfern (Comptonia peregrina) is a member of the bayberry family, also known as the myrtle family, or Myricaceae. The genus name honors the Rev. Henry Compton, bishop of Oxford and London in the late 1600s and an avid gardener; and the species means “foreign.”

Foreign to Compton, perhaps, but sweetfern is native to our neck of the continent, growing from hardiness zones 2 to 5 or 6 in eastern North America, from Ontario to the Maritimes, and south to two northeastern counties of Georgia.

This deciduous shrub has fragrant, fern-like foliage, but it’s a flowering plant and not a fern. It grows 1 to 4 feet tall and can spread indefinitely via rhizomes. That spreading nature and the plant’s ability to associate with nitrogen-fixing actinomycetes (a group of bacteria) are responsible for its colonization of disturbed sites low in fertility; it does best in sandy to gravelly, peaty, acid soils. Like its relative bayberry, it also tolerates drought and salt spray and grows best in full sun to partial shade.

Sweetfern is attractive in a naturalistic landscape; its foliage lends a deep green color and soft, mound shape to the landscape in summer. Right now the foliage is turning deep purple, which will give way to brown.

Sweetfern flowers are in small, nondescript catkins that appear in spring, before the leaves emerge. They produce nutlets inside burr-like husks.

This shrub is most easily propagated by root cuttings. Michael Dirr (Manual of Woody Landscape Plants) recommends digging root pieces in late winter or early spring, before growth starts. For 1/16-inch-diameter roots, take 4-inch-long cuttings; for 3/8- to 1/2-inch-diameter roots, take 2-inch-long cuttings. Place them horizontally in a sand-peat mixture, 1/2 inch deep. New roots and shoots should develop from these.

Native Americans used sweetfern for many purposes. A synopsis posted by the University of Michigan-Dearborn at http://herb.umd.umich.edu/herb/search.pl?searchstring=Comptonia+peregrina includes these:

• An infusion of leaves was taken to treat headaches, round worms, fevers, stomach cramps, diarrhea and tuberculosis; as an expectorant; and was used externally to treat blisters and poison ivy rash, sprains and swellings.

• Dried leaves were burned as incense in religious ceremonies, and plants were smoked to remove excess mucus from the nose or throat.

• An infusion of sweetfern, mallow root, elder flowers and dwarf elder was used to purify blood, remove mucus from the lungs and to treat bladder inflammation.

• Preparations were also used during and after childbirth.

Today, a Maine company, Sweet Fern, of Oxford, makes a Sweet Fern Poison Ivy Cure that is sold in health and specialty food stores with directions to boil the dried sweetfern leaves in water for 10 minutes, let the tea cool, strain it and then dab the tea on the infected areas.

“The itching will immediately stop,” says the company’s Web site, adding, “The oozing will stop within two hours and the rash will dry up in about 24 hours, simple as that!” The company also makes Sweet Fern Tea.

Native Americans also reportedly lined baskets with fresh sweetfern leaves to help preserve fruits, such as blueberries.

Even if you don’t use sweetfern to cure your catarrh or fight your poison ivy, you might plant it for wildlife. West Virginia University says rabbits and deer browse the foliage and stems; buds and catkins are occasional winter food of grouse; and the shrubs provide valuable cover for small wildlife and ground-dwelling birds.

I may plant some sweetfern just for the joy of handling the foliage as I pass it on a sunny day, releasing the pungent odor into the air.