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Weekly “What is it?”: Resurrection Ferns

Thriving resurrection fern on a recently downed live oak tree. Photo credit: Carrie Stevenson, UF IFAS Extension

The western Panhandle was dealt a tough blow by Hurricane Sally. We lost homes and trees, power and internet, work productivity and another week and a half of school. Our office flooded, and a very large on live oak tree on our Extension property fell in the storm. When I went over to look at the downed live oak and bid it farewell, I was reminded that, as always, there are signs of life and renewal even after death. With all of the rain a hurricane brings, the resurrection fern (Pleopeltis polypodioides) growing along the huge, muscular branches of the dead live oak was in full growth.

Dry, brown resurrection fern on a live oak after a period without rain. Photo credit: Carrie Stevenson, UF IFAS Extension

Found most often along the branches and trunks of stately mature live oaks, this plant can turn from a dry, crackly brown to a vibrant green in the span of a day. The fern’s unusual response to dry weather is an adaptation that allows the fronds to curl inward, reducing water loss by decreasing surface area exposed to the elements.

Blades of turfgrass will respond similarly to drought, folding in half after several days with no water. Most plants will start to die back at a 10% water loss. However, the resurrection fern takes drought tolerance to a whole new level, capable of losing up to 97% of its water content without dying.  Several researchers estimate the fern can live 100 years in its dry state. However, true to its name, the resurrection fern will spring back to life after a rain or an increase in humidity.

Like last week’s Spanish moss, this epiphyte, or “air plant”, uses a host plant (typically live oak, pecan, or sabal palm) as its growing surface. Yet the fern does not damage the tree.  Its root system is composed of long, winding rhizomes that tuck into the nooks and crannies of the tree’s bark, collecting rainwater and nutrients from airborne dust and nutrients leaching from the trees themselves.

The fern that was completely dry one day will turn a vibrant green just after a rainfall. Photo credit: Carrie Stevenson

The thin, elongated rhizomes of the resurrection fern root into the crevices of a live oak’s bark. Photo credit: Carrie Stevenson, UF IFAS Extension

The resurrection fern has earned its place in history for several other reasons.  According to literature from early pioneers and indigenous people, members of the Florida Seminole and Miccosukee tribes used the fern in baths to treat insanity.  They also made a root mixture of the resurrection fern and Shoestring fern (Vittaria lineata) to treat chronic health conditions and sick babies.

Because of their unique attributes, resurrection ferns were taken in space along with the shuttle Discovery in 1997 as part of a mission to better understand natural phenomena from the perspective of space.

The plant is native to the eastern United States west to Texas and throughout the American tropics. A variety of the species is also native to southern Africa. It can be propagated by cutting several inches of the rhizomes and placing them into crevices of another tree, log, or rocky area.  Dry fronds will respond to being sprayed with water in under an hour, so it’s also a fun experiment to show kids!

For those of you out there struggling to get back to normal after this storm, perhaps the resurrection fern can serve as an inspiration that life goes on. For resources on disaster recovery, please visit the University of Florida Disaster site. For more on resurrection ferns, check out the UF School of Forest Resources.