If you’ve ever gazed up at a centuries-old live oak and seen delicate green fronds curling around the tree’s trunk and branches, you’ve likely caught a glimpse of the resurrection fern. It’s a classic image of Southern landscapes and of regional ecology. Resurrection fern is the common name of the species Pleopeltis polypodioides, an epiphytic plant that grows on the surface of other plants and trees, most often live oaks and the like. The Southern Living Garden Book describes it as «An old Southern favorite that grows about 1 foot high, spreads widely by slender, creeping rhizomes, and is often found on the massive limbs of live oaks.»
Does It Harm The Plants It Grows On?
While you’ve likely seen resurrection fern creeping up the trunks of towering live oaks, the epiphyte, or air plant, doesn’t harm the tree beneath. It can be more closely compared to harmless Spanish moss than it can to a suffocating vine such as kudzu. Though it grows atop other plants, resurrection fern is not parasitic. Instead, it grows using the moisture and nutrients it accesses from the surrounding environment, including the air and intermittent rain.
Where Does It Get Its Name?
Rain is key to the plant’s common name. P. polypodioides is called «resurrection fern» because, in dry weather, the fern’s fronds curl up, turn brown, and seem to be dead—that is, until the next rain, when they turn green and spring back to life.
Where Does Resurrection Fern Grow?
Resurrection fern is native to the United States, and its reach extends north to Delaware, south to Florida, west to Texas, and also up to Illinois. It is also native to Central and South America.
Resurrection ferns can be found growing on trees such as live oaks, magnolias, and cypresses as well as on fallen logs, stumps, rocks, and even fence posts and buildings. The plant is hardy in USDA zones 6–10.
What Does It Look Like?
You can identify and differentiate resurrection fern from other epiphytic plants by its appearance. According to The Southern Living Garden Book, «Its fronds are deeply cut and leathery, with scaly undersides; they reach 7 inches long, 2 inches wide.» They are readily identifiable as a species of fern because of their form, which is made up of a central frond with many deep divisions.