You’ll find thickets of sweet gale while walking the boardwalk over the wetlands at the Tennant Lake Wildlife Area in Ferndale.
Bruise a blue-green leaf or one of its brown stems, sniff, and you’ll learn how the plant earned its name. The shrub, which can grow to nearly 5 feet tall, has other names, including Dutch myrtle, English myrtle, meadow fern and bog myrtle although it’s neither a fern nor a myrtle.
Sweet gale grows in wet places with acidic soils. Its leaves are oblong, and its male and female flowers are found on separate plants on greenish-yellow catkins, which look like small pine cones. The catkins stay on through winter; male catkins are about twice as long as female catkins.
The shrub has some importance to native tribes in British Columbia; the Stl’atl’imx called it “monkey bush” because they believed it was used in some way by sasquatches of legends, while the Nuxalk (also known as the Bella Coola) boiled the branches to create a diuretic.
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Branches, bark and leaves have been used to make “gale beer.” The plant also has been boiled to create a potion that acts as an insecticide and to kill vermin.
Sources: “Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast,” by Jim Pojar and Andy MacKinnon; Gerry Moore for the United States Department of Agriculture Forest Service