Resurrection Fern

I have a resurrection plant. I sometimes call it a resurrection fern, even though I know that’s a different plant entirely; mine is Selaginella lepidophylla, a club-moss native to the American Southwest, while true resurrection ferns are Polypoidium polypolioides, native to the American South. But both the moss and the fern, as well as a few other plants in the world, perform the same incredible feat: they return to life from the brink of death.

Both resurrection moss and fern live with little to begin with. The moss is a desert plant, sometimes called flor de piedra, the stone flower. During periods of drought, the resurrection plant curls up into a tight little fist, brown and nearly desiccated, for all appearances dead. It becomes a tumbleweed, rolling with the desert wind in search of the next patch of mud. Finding something to drink, a remarkable change takes place: its cells rehydrate in a mere hour or two, and the fist opens into a hand. A few hours later, it becomes green again. The dormant machinery that powers it, all the organelles of its chloroplasts, revive and whir into action. Sunlight becomes sunlight again. Just a kiss of moisture, and it walks out of its own grave. The resurrection plant may tumble around the desert lifelessly for a century waiting for such a blessing.

The resurrection fern, on the other hand, has a different approach. It lives in the humid swamps of the South as an epiphyte. I have seen them in Florida, carpeting themselves on the shelf-like branches of live oaks, waiting for rain. They are air plants, and their roots exist mainly to grasp the ragged bark. Living above the soil, they take everything they need from the air. They draw moisture from the muggy Southern atmosphere and nutrients from settling dust. But when the air is dry, they fold up and play dead, a garden of brown and quiet coral. They are not vagabonds, drifters, or seekers. They are simply patient, praying quietly for the monsoon to visit so that they can fill their empty cups.

I have a resurrection plant. I keep it because it reminds me of happier times. I keep it because I love novelty creatures: ant farms, sea monkey colonies, venus flytrap terrariums. I keep it in part because, despite that I was a botany student and an urban forester, I cannot even keep a cactus alive in my house, and this is the one green thing I cannot kill. But mainly I keep to remind me that not everything that appears dead is so. Resurrection plants are like memories: seemingly forgotten, sometimes a mere mention of water is all it takes for them to become remembered. Resurrection plants are like old wounds: Stubborn and persistent, cottonmouthed and whispering, refusing to be starved to death, fully empowered with a millimeter of water. And resurrection plants are like hearts: some tumble and some wait. Some eat the air. And some pack everything away into sawdust during the long dry journey, until they seem to have flatlined and the machinery no longer works and the doctors want to give up on them and move on. Yet within their DNA is packaged a thing humans call hope, and the world, if the world could speak, would call a trait for survival, and the universe, if the universe could speak, would call a second chance.

And sometimes it fails. Sometimes the resurrection plant rolls into an irrigation ditch and blooms only to drown. Somewhere on the Rio Grande is a resurrection plant that unfurled in the muddy water and is floating out to the ocean like an ugly lotus. And once, in New Mexico, a sleeping moss awoke to find itself in a wine glass of water on some poet’s coffee table, admired as a metaphor but doomed to never plant its spores in the good earth. But that never diminishes the miracle of the thing. Unlike almost any other living creature on earth, which thirsts and thirsts until its cells pucker and petrify, the resurrection plant continues on though its insides are as good as wet stone. It lives only in the good times. It hardly knows thirst, because it is only conscious when it is satisfied. It lives on snapshots of rain. It lives like a boiling kettle, flourishing with steam until it runs dry and goes silent, waiting to be refilled. Perhaps it’s not the way you’d want to live, near-dead instead of suffering, packing its precious existence into a suitcase until the moment presents itself to explode its clothes all over the room. A hundred years without tasting water and sunlight may be too long a sentence for the human heart and too high a price for a long life. But in the long run, it always cheers me to know that what is lost may be rediscovered no matter how far gone it may seem. What is starved may yet grow fat. What is imprisoned may yet go free. What seems dead may still ring the bell, roll the rock back, and say, I only needed this small offering to be myself. It is enough. This little gift is enough.

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About quantumbiologist

Christian Drake, AKA The Quantum Biologist, is a naturalist and poet formerly of Albuquerque, NM and currently living deep in the backwoods of the Connecticut Berkshires. He has worked in aquariums and planetariums, national parks and urban forests. When not birding or turning over rocks to find weird bugs, he enjoys rockabilly music, gourmet cooking, playing harmonica and writing dirty haiku. View all posts by quantumbiologist

13 responses to “Resurrection Fern

  • Tatyana Brown

    Favorite.

  • DRD

    Superb. One of your best.

  • Benjamin Bormann

    The heart of the matter: “Yet within their DNA is packaged a thing humans call hope, and the world, if the world could speak, would call a trait for survival, and the universe, if the universe could speak, would call a second chance.”

    The world continuously speaks. And you? You’re not too shabby an interpreter.

  • Larisa Roderick

    I love the time-lapse “resurrection”! We see a lot of resurrection ferns on old live oaks here in St. Cloud, FL.
    I’m certainly glad that this native species has been lucky enough to survive the onslaught of overdevelopment… But mourn the loss of another:

    U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service concludes eastern cougar extinct

    http://www.fws.gov/northeast/ECougar/newsreleasefinal.html

    Please note that the agency’s decision to declare the eastern cougar extinct does not affect the status of the endangered Florida panther, considered by some to be a separate subspecies.

    • quantumbiologist

      The Eastern cougar (or “catamount,” as they used to call it here in New England) may be extinct, but the Western cougar is moving eastwards. They’ve even been sighted in Michigan.

      • Copernicus

        And there are still sightings in eastern Tennessee. The real old-timers called them “painters,” reflecting some version of a Scots-Irish pronunciation of the “th” in “panther.”

  • starlite

    Lovely. :) I live in Central Florida and I see those ferns all the time…

  • Leora

    Wow! Such a great piece. As has been said, it us definitely one of your best, yet. This is why I keep reading your blog. You leave me full of such wonder at the natural world. Thank you!

  • Danielle Roberts

    This post was gorgeous. I normally read for the humor, information that is only useful for one-upmanship at a cocktail party, and the cleverly snarky mouse-over, but you just stunned my pants off.

    • quantumbiologist

      Thanks! I would do this more often, but I try to limit and space out the “poetic” posts, because if I did these three times a week, everyone including myself would get real bored, real quick. “Hmm, I wonder what The Quantum Biologist has to say today about the nine-banded armadillo and what it has to teach us about the condition of the human soul.” Ick, right?

      And the denser, more lyrical posts tend to be my way of figuring things out in my own life. So thank God I don’t have to write them every time.

  • Robert Ashdown

    Ha! Ha! Just when I think I’ve found the best nat history blogs, I find yours, and it lays all others to waste … yes, you are a fantastic interpreter! Great writing.

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