Home of the Practically Perfect Pink Phlox and other native plants for pollinators

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Wildflower Wednesday: Resurrection Fern

Pleopeltis polypodioides is remarkably beautiful and resilient.
Photo credit: Ellen Honeycutt, south Georgia, Altama Plantation WMA
If you've seen it covering the limbs of an ancient oak tree you'll know what I mean by beautiful and if you've seen it shrivel up in a drought and resurrect when the rain returns, you will know what I mean by resilient.

Resurrection fern in Edwin Warner Park

The first time I noticed the tree was on a walk at Edwin Warner Park. I happened to look up and see  ferns covering all the limbs of a massive tree. It was magnificent and I pondered the many times I had walked beneath it before noticing it. Sometimes a wildflower enthusiast spends too much time looking down and misses the beauty that is just above them. Since then, I make sure to always look up when walking in a natural area...I don't want to miss anything.

 Univ of Florida
As I said earlier, resurrection fern is beautiful and incredibly resilient. When the weather is dry, it turns gray and shrivels up. It can lose 95 percent of it's moisture and survive. By contrast, many plants will be pronounced dead if they lose as little as 10 percent of their water content. When the rain comes, it will spring to life within a matter of hours, turning bright green and unfurling its fronds.

How does it accomplish this? Drying fronds curl with their bottom sides upward, this allows them to rehydrate quickly when rains return because most of the water is actually absorbed on the bottom of the fronds. The plant produces a chemical/substance called dehydrin. These dehydrins act as a lubricant so the cells fold in a manner that allows drying to be reversed. (source)

A fern like that should be in every one's garden! 


Pleopeltis polypodioides is found in hardwood forests throughout the Southeast, as far north as New York and as far west as Texas. Due to its ability to withstand drought, it can be found in a variety of habitats, but it needs a host plant on which to anchor itself. Resurrection ferns often favor oak trees and the one's I have seen in nearby woodlands have all been oaks.

The resurrection fern is a type of epiphytic fern, which means it grows on top of other plants. It is not a parasitic plant and does not harm the host plant. It gets its nutrients from the air and water. Like all ferns, it reproduces by spores, not seeds or fruit. The spores are housed in structures called sori on the underside of fronds.

Identifying Characteristics and Particulars

Botanical name: Pleopeltis polypodioides

Common name:  Resurrection fern

Family: Polypodiaceae

Habitat: It is found in many hardwood forest habitats. The plant is native to the eastern United States west to Texas and throughout the American tropics. Its most often seen growing on the branches or main stem of large trees like oaks. It's possible that they rely on mosses for moisture which indicates that they prefer a moist environment.  Situated in the crotches and  branches of large trees allows them to capture sunlight and moisture more easily. The photo below from my garden shows moss is present with the fern.

Mosses might provide some moisture to the ferns

Zone: 6 to 9 

Size/Form: This tiny, creeping fern has a long stem to which the fronds are attached. Extensive colonies of resurrection ferns can be formed in the open shade of trees. Fronds are usually 4 to 12 inches long and a very nice green. They are easy to maintain, don't harbor diseases. They offer a graceful note to any landscape design.

Height: 0.50 to 1.00 feet Spread: 0.50 to 1.00 feet

Stem: The long, horizontal, skinny stem is less than 1/12" in diameter and is attached to and creeps along the bark of large trees.

Leaves: The leathery, evergreen leaves are called fronds and are 4" to 12" long. The fronds are made of smaller, rounded, oblong blades alternately arranged but tending to become opposite.
spores on underside of fronds (source)

Reproduction: The spores are found in clusters, called sori, on the bottom of the blades near the edge. The sori appear as brown to black scales.

Bloom Time: Non-flowering. See Sori above.

Sun: Part shade to full shade

Water: Medium to maintain greenery, but, it will dry out during droughts and resurrect/green up when it rains

Wildlife value: From a wildlife point of view, ground ferns can give structure that provides foraging space and shelter for ground-feeding birds, while other critters, for example frogs and turtles, like to hide in them. (source) Resurrection fern lives in the trees and on some fallen limbs and is not without value. Stems, leaves, and flowers host microorganisms, creating a habitat called a phyllosphere, a term used in microbiology to refer to all above-ground portions of plants as habitat for microorganisms. I am not a microbiologist, but, I believe that these micro-organisms are often beneficial  to the host. Native people recognized resurrection ferns value. They used it a diuretic, a remedy for heart problems, and as a treatment for infections. Recent medical research is confirming some of these folklore reports and has shown that the extracts from the fern have anti-arrhythmic cardiac properties. (source)  

Maintenance: Little maintenance is required unless you want to keep it green. In nature it greens and dries up naturally and requires no care.

Comments: Resurrection ferns have even been to space. The Space Shuttle Discovery carried one onboard in 1997 to test the resurrection effect in zero gravity.

I repeat, A fern like that should be in every one's garden! But, it's not always easy to locate plants for sale. If you're lucky like me you might have a piece of bark from a fallen tree. Search the internet for nurseries that do not collect from the wild. Your local WildOne chapter or Native Plant Society might have members who will share plants with you. Don't be afraid to ask. Unfortunately, I haven't enough to share.

I hope you can find a source, let me know when you do.


Welcome to Clay and Limestone and Wildflower Wednesday.  Thank you all for joining me as we start another year of sharing marvelous and beautiful wildflowers. I hope 2020 is the year we all plant more native wildflowers for the many critters that live in and visit our gardens. Let's be sure we celebrate them every day, not just WW. Remember, it doesn't matter if they are in bloom or not, you can still share them.  Please leave a comment and add your name to Mr Linky so others can pop over to see your Wildflower Wednesday post.

Gail Eichelberger is a gardener and therapist in Middle Tennessee. She loves wildflowers and native plants and thoroughly enjoys writing about the ones she grows at Clay and Limestone. She reminds all that the words and images are the property of the author and cannot be used without written permission.


  1. Think I told you this before, we have a nice patch of Resurrection Fern just outside the neighborhood- in a small family cemetery. Would love to have one in my garden, but so far I don't.
    The first one I saw was in a tree in a church yard.

  2. I think I have seen this fern--particularly in FL, SC, and GA growing on large tree branches. It's certainly a beauty!

  3. I don't recall seeing this fern in Indiana. I have seen it when traveling in the south. I will be looking more closely to try to find it in my neck of the woods.

  4. I hope you find it. It should look quite brown and dead at this time of year.

  5. It's a beautiful fern. Do you know what other sorts of trees it will grow on - we have no oaks in or near our garden.

    1. Pecan trees, cypress trees, live oak, deciduous oak or sabal palm. It can grow on rocks and fallen limbs of trees.

  6. Plumbago for you this time. Usually buzzing with happy insects.


"Insects are the little things that run the world." Dr. E O Wilson