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Tales from a Plant Addict

Fun (& a few serious) facts, tips and tricks for every gardener, new and old.

Resurrection Plant or Fern

Nearly ten years ago, a sign advertising a "miracle fern" caught my eye at a garden center. The plant being advertised, Selaginella lepidophylla, doesn't look like much, just a little cluster of brown, dead looking leaves. But place it in a shallow dish of water, and overnight, like magic, the leaves unfurl, and become green. Take it out of the water, and as it dries it reverts to the dead looking tuft of leaves again.

This plant is also commonly called the "resurrection fern" due to its ability to go from dead-looking to green and back again depending on available water. My original plant has been sitting on a shelf in its dead-looking brown state for nearly ten years since I originally bought it.

My husband went on a business trip recently and brought back a resurrection fern he saw in a shop where he was visiting. That gift reminded me I had another one of these "miracle ferns" in my office. I put some water on the original, ten year old fern just to test if it would really "resurrect". Much to my amazement, it did come back to life!

The resurrection fern is native to parts of Africa and the Americas. It is a true marvel of the plant world, not just a novelty item as it is often sold as.

Most plants can only tolerate about a 10% loss of water from their cells before the plant dies. In human terms, we can lose only about 20% of our body's water before death occurs. The resurrection fern has evolved to be able to tolerate losing up to 97% of its water and somehow manages to remain alive. During a "typical" dry period, it will lose around 75% of its water, which is still a phenomenal feat no matter who you are.

Some experts have estimated that the resurrection fern can exist in it's nearly completely dry state for at least 100 years. Researchers speculate that the resurrection fern's ability to tolerate such incredible levels of dehydration gives them an evolutionary advantage, because they will be able to survive an extended drought period long after their neighbors have succumbed to the lack of water.

Resurrection ferns are true ferns. They reproduce via spores rather than seeds. The spores develop in structures called sporangia on the underside of the leaves arranged in clusters called sori. The sori on the resurrection fern look like round depressed areas, and at maturity are typically dark in color.

Unlike most other ferns, resurrection ferns are epiphytic, meaning they attach to another living species and collect water and nutrients that collect on the surface where they are attached. Another common name for this type of plant is "air plant".

They are in no way stealing nutrients from their host plants. Like other epiphytes such as Spanish moss and some orchids, the host plant is only a point of attachment, and gives the epiphyte a better position for absorbing water and nutrients from the environment.

The host plant of choice for resurrection ferns is living trees. They use a creeping rhizome to attach themselves, and often occur in great numbers in nature.

I wrongly assumed that resurrection ferns were native only to tropical climates. On the contrary, the subspecies that naturally occurs in North America, michauxiana, also called Weatherby, lives not only in Florida and west to Texas, but also can be found as far north as New York. The USDA lists this subspecies as being found in the southernmost counties of Illinois.

Resurrection fern's ability to withstand extended periods without water may have an interesting application in modern life, specifically space travel.

One limitation to doing biological experiments in space is that specimens need to survive being loaded for a flight and held in less than optimum conditions for extended periods of time before liftoff. As part of ongoing research on biological experiment systems in space, middle school students in South Carolina nominated the Resurrection Fern as a hardy candidate for space travel.

Students at the Medical University of South Carolina designed an experiment measuring chlorophyll fluorescence (the green pigment in plants responsible for photosynthesis) to assess how resurrection ferns revived in space. In 1997, resurrection ferns earned the title of "first fern in space" on the Space Shuttle Discovery.

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