Resurrection Fern

Top: Barking Treefrog
Bottom: Green Treefrog
by Peg Lindsay

The rainy season has returned. Maybe our drought is over. In my part of the state, lakes have risen a foot in just two weeks, although they are still well below historic levels. In the evenings following a deluge, I enjoy listening to the exceptionally loud chorus of froggies in the treetops, especially the Barking Treefrog (Hyla gratiosa) and the Green Treefrog (Hyla cinerea). Not only are they music to my ears, but my plants like them too - they consume a hearty share of beetles and their kin, which we seem to have an abundance of in Florida.

Dry resurrection fern
Another remarkable phenomenon occurs after a heavy rain. The seemingly dead plant known as resurrection fern, Pleopeltis (formerly Polypodium) polypodioides var. michauxiana, absorbs water, unfurls and turns emerald green. This little epiphyte is typically found growing on either the limbs of our native live oak (Quercus virginiana) or in the “boots” (attached leaf bases) of the native cabbage palm (Sabal palmetto). A few hours of rain and the oak’s huge, fern-covered branches become brilliant green where they once were grey-brown. There are a few several good time-lapse videos of this process (water absorption and unfurling) available on YouTube. When fully hydrated, each frond is about four inches long by two inches wide with multiple leaflets off the center stem. It attaches to the limbs of its host plant with a creeping, slender rhizome, often tucked into the oak's deeply cracked bark.

Hydrated resurrection fern. Photo by Peg Lindsay.
Oddly enough, to follow Florida’s latitude around the globe is to run across dry desert. Florida’s climate might be described as "wet desert" with normal periods of extreme wet and dry conditions. This little fern evolved and adapted to tolerate these extremes. Although it can lose up to 97% of its water and still survive, it typically only loses about 76% during droughts. It has been speculated that these plants could go 100 years without water and still revive after a single soaking. Although it makes other plants its home, it is not parasitic, so it does not feed off of what it lives on. Rather, its nutritional needs are met via rain and dust. Resurrection fern is sometimes sold as a novelty item in gift shops and as a mail-order "miracle plant" on the back covers of comic books and magazines.

You don't need a tree to enjoy this native fern
Those whose living spaces are too small to accommodate cabbage palms and/or live oaks can cultivate resurrection fern on an oak log, where it should be allowed it to dry out and periodically sprayed with water. Ideally, this wonderful  little fern wants to grow on living trees, especially large oaks. If you'd like to give it a home in your landscape, ask a friend who already has it for a starter - several inches of the thin rhizome should do the trick. Squeeze it into the furrowed bark of an oak tree and you're set! Between its lovely green color, fine texture and drought tolerance, I bet it would make a pretty groundcover on oak bark mulch. Anyone care to give it a go?
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Edited and posted by Laurie Sheldon

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