John Merle (J.M.) Coulter was a survivor.

The American botanist, along with his wife and six children, lived through the sinking of the White Star Line’s steam-powered ocean liner RMS Republic. It was also known as the millionaires’ ship because of its reputation for steaming across the ocean with America’s wealthiest passengers.  

In 1903, the Republic became enveloped in fog southeast of the Vineyard and was hit broadside by the Italian steamship Florida. Six people died in the collision, most at the site of impact. Passengers, including Coulter and his family, were saved in part by the use of radiotelegraphy, which allowed for a distress call to be sent and a quick rescue mission to be dispatched.  

Coulter is on my mind not because his trip began in nearby Boston, nor because his ship was rammed in waters just south of the Islands, but because it was only nine years before this fateful trip that his work collided with the subject of this column. 

In this case, J. M.’s botanic bequest was the naming — or, actually, renaming — of a shrub commonly known as sweet fern.    

Sweet fern is neither sweet nor a fern. Although it is definitely scented, one might call its fragrance more savory than sweet. And though it has, to the non-technical eye, a resemblance to ferns, it is not related to the feathery fronds of a true fern.  

Coulter deserves credit for its scientific name: Comptonia peregrina. He wasn’t the first to give it a name: that honor more likely goes to indigenous users of the herb.  

The Comptonia part of the name is a tribute to a 17th century English bishop,

and peregrina translates to exotic, foreign, or immigrant, though the plant is native to the United States. Three or four previous names described the plant, though Coulter’s is the current, and hopefully final, version.  

Sweet fern is a deciduous shrub, though often its brown, curled leaves can persist into winter. It is a good herb to know, as it provides physical and spiritual support and is well suited to difficult soils and harsh environmental conditions.  

Indigenous folks likely used it for food, medicine and ceremonies. Its leaves were employed as an anti-itch agent, both topically and by burning over a fire or smudging to reduce the presence of mosquitoes. For breathing ailments, inhaling sweet fern could clear the lungs, and teas with the leaves and branches were considered a tonic for the body. 

The plant provides other edible parts for people and wildlife. Spike burs hold small nuts that resemble pine nuts and catkins persist after the leaves fall and can be used for flavoring. 

Some interesting recipes come from the magazine Edible Brooklyn and include making catkin-infused spirits and they suggest gin, bourbon and vermouth for the base; using the leaves and twigs to smoke meats and fish with an aromatic essence; crushing dried leaves in salt or sugar; and making sweet fern herbed butter. Some butterflies and moths use the plant as a larval food source, not to be outdone by those urbanites.  

Whether Brooklyn hip or historically cool, there is a boatload of options for integrating sweet fern into your culinary consciousness. It is, in fact, a crash course of savory and satisfying uses that should put sweet fern on everyone’s radar.   

Suzan Bellincampi is islands director for Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary in Edgartown and the Nantucket Wildlife Sanctuaries. She is also the author of Martha’s Vineyard: A Field Guide to Island Nature and The Nature of Martha’s Vineyard.