Resurrection fern (Polypodium polypodioides and Pleopeltis polypodioides) is an unusual plant. After a rainfall, its dry, dead-looking leaves resurrect, becoming lush and green. When conditions turn arid again, the leaves dry up until the next rain. The leaves, or fronds, grow about 6 inches long and 1 1/2 inches wide. Resurrection fern does not cause a rash on humans who touch it. Like any plant in the wild, however, it should not be ingested.
Walk through a forest or stroll through a neighborhood and you will see a resurrection fern resting on a tree branch or blanketing a tree trunk. At first sight, it looks as if the fern draws nutrients from the tree, but actually resurrection fern is an epiphytic plant and not a parasite. An epiphyte merely uses another plant to sit higher in the understory, which is the area below forest plants' canopies, so it can receive more sunlight. It gathers life-sustaining nutrients from air and rain, making it an indicator of air quality because toxins wash out of polluted air and deposit on the plant, killing it.
Resurrection fern commonly is found on hardwood trees in the southeastern United States, but it can be seen as far north as New York and west to Kansas in U.S. Department of Agriculture plant hardiness zones 6 through 11, where it is hardy. It is native to those regions and not considered invasive. Because of its ability to withstand long periods of drought by curling into a ball to reduce moisture loss, it grows in Texas as well as Florida’s high-rainfall, subtropical climate.
In regions with high rainfall, resurrection fern grows in partial shade to full sun on trees near office buildings and in swampy areas. In temperate regions, it prefers partial shade to full shade and grows on trees along rivers and in swamps. Because of its epiphytic qualities, it also grows on rocks and the ground. The plant gathers water by pushing its rhizomes into cracks of tree bark, where rainwater collects.
Transplant resurrection fern from a rock or hardwood tree by gathering 6 to 12 inches of the plant’s rhizome and cutting it away from the host rock or tree. Relocate it onto another hardwood tree by pushing the gathered rhizome into the cracks of the tree's bark, or plant it next to a rock where water from the next rainfall will reach it.
An entertaining activity is to spritz a dried, crumbled resurrection fern with water once every hour and, after just a few hours, see the fern resurrect into a lush, green plant.
- Floridata: Polypodium Polypodioides
- University of Florida School of Forest Resources and Conservation Extension: 4-H Forest Resources -- Resurrection Fern
- Marie Selby Botanical Gardens: What Are Epiphytes?
- U.S. Department of Agriculture: Plants Profile for Pleopeltis Polypodioides
- Missouri Botanical Garden: Polypodium Polypodioides
- MSUCares.com, Mississippi State University: Mississippi Gardens Newsletter Archives -- Resurrection Fern Will Rise from the Dead
- Photo Credit Jupiterimages/Photos.com/Getty Images