Les Harrison is the UF/IFAS Wakulla County Extension Director
With Easter just around the corner, what better plant to observe than one with the power to rise from the dead? The resurrection fern is aptly named for its uncanny ability to revive itself after long periods of drought. Within a day, it can go from a shriveled, dry, grey to a flourishing green.
Aside from the pines, magnolias and live oaks, there has been green in the branches of some hardwood trees that made it through the winter. Resurrection ferns have remained green in their sheltered perches as the seasons change.
Pleopeltis polypodioides, the scientific name for this native fern, has easily flourished through the recent winter with sufficient moisture. This creeping, coarse textured fern is commonly found in the southeastern United State, but also in some African locations.
It has been commonly identified as a resurrection fern because of its capacity to survive long periods of drought. During dry times the leaves brown and wither, but the roots and leaves survive by stingily conserving water. When rains return, this fern quickly regenerates by promptly circulating water to the leaves through the plants highly efficient vascular system. To the casual observer, it appears to return from the dead in about a day.
The resurrection fern is an air plant, or epiphyte, which attaches itself to other plants. It receives the necessary plant nutrients for growth from several sources. Bacterial activity on the outer surface of its plant host’s bark is a major contributor. The outer bark layer of many plants and trees is in the process of being shed and is an ideal location for this fern to grow. Other tiny particles of nutrients are delivered through rain water and on the breezes. Though meager in life sustaining supplies, the resurrection fern flourishes in this harsh environment where most plants would quickly die.
Though usually located on tree branches, resurrection ferns are sometime seen growing on rocks, bricks or dead, fallen, logs. It is not rare to see this fern growing with another native epiphytic plant, Spanish moss. This plant’s root system are tiny and shallow, as could be expected of a fern which grows on the outer layer of bark. It uses an intricate mesh of rhizomes which meander just beneath the bark’s surface. These rhizomes are part of the ferns ability spread along the branches and colonizes new sites on the tree or plant. Periodically the roots will emerge on the bark’s surface and sprout leaves.
The other method of propagation and species preservation is through spores produced on the underside of the leaves. Most leaf tips have a mechanism to generate a high volume of tiny, wind-delivered, spores. During summer and early autumn, the spores ripen and are scattered on the prevailing breezes. While only a tiny fraction make it to a hospitable site, the ones which do quickly establish themselves. So if 2015 produces a wet or dry summer, resurrection ferns will be here. If only other plants were as easy to tend.
To learn more about resurrection ferns in Wakulla County, contact your UF/IFAS Wakulla Extension Office at 850-926-3931 or https://blogs.ifas.ufl.edu/wakullaco/