The City Magazine Since 1975

Resurrection Fern

September 2017
Resurrection Fern
ILLUSTRATOR: 

During periods of drought, folks uninitiated in the magical ways of Pleopeltis polypodioides may spy the epiphyte fern’s brown, curled leaves atop the branch of an oak tree and think, “poor dying, shriveled thing!” Yet all it takes is the briefest rain to return the leaves to healthy greenness. It is thought that these Southeastern natives can live as long as 100 years without water. Read on for more cool facts

LIVING ON AIR Like the Spanish moss that also makes its home on oak trees, the resurrection fern is an epiphyte, or air plant, which means it primarily gets its nutrients from particles in the air. The flora is not parasitic and causes no injury to host trees; rather, it’s an integral part of the habitats that provide food and shelter for birds, lizards, insects, and mammals alike.

MIRACLE GROWERS During periods without water, the fern appears to shrivel up, its leaves curling inward to minimize the surface area exposed to the elements. Experiments show that the plants can lose up to 97 percent of their water, but typically only give up about 75 percent during dry spells. By comparison, most plants die after being deprived of 10 percent of their agua.

SUCCESS BY SORI Ferns don’t reproduce by seeds, but by spores that are housed on the underside of the fronds in reproductive structures called ”soris.” When the spores drop off the leaves, they become deposited on branches—or tree roots, fallen logs, even rocks—where they take root and form new plants.

STAR TREATMENT In 1997, the plant earned the title “first fern in space” when it was taken up aboard the Space Shuttle Discovery; scientists wanted to find out if it could ”resurrect” in zero gravity. Astoundingly, the answer was ”yes.”

TREE HOUSE You’ll spot the species carpeting the branches of large cypress and oak trees, attaching to limbs with slender, creeping rhizomes. Fronds typically grow four to 12 inches long.