The Resurrection Plant: More Dead Than Alive

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The resurrection plant can go from a ball of apparently dead leaves to a flat open rosette in just hours. Photo: Bas L, YouTube.ca

With Easter coming up, I thought it might be interesting to discuss the so-called resurrection plant or resurrection moss (Selaginella lepidophylla), also called rose of Jericho (for the city that rose from its ashes) or dinosaur plant (perhaps because it’s scaly?). 

This is a modern ad, but this kind of offer has been around for over 75 years. Ill.: helpfulgardener.com

When I was kid, they used to sell it from ads in comic books. The idea is that you simply had to water what looked like a dead plant and it would come back to life. Did I fall for this? Sure I did! And while I did get mine to open up, it never really came alive and was certainly never “lovely and lush”… and yours won’t be either. 

So, what’s going on?

What is the Resurrection Plant?

The resurrection plant in habitat in Texas. Photo: Loughmiller, Campbell and Lynn, http://www.wildflower.org

The plant behind the name resurrection plant is usually Selaginella lepidophylla. It is actually just one of many “resurrection plants,” known for their ability to survive extreme dehydration for months or even years, then revive when exposed to moisture. In the wild, this desert plant grows in arid areas of Central and South America and southern North America, notably in the Chihuahuan Desert along the border of Mexico and Texas where most plants sold are harvested. 

It’s a spikemoss, a primitive plant that you could say is, evolution-wise, somewhere between a moss and a fern. It never flowers, of course, but spreads by spores.

Selaginella lepidophylla is not the only spikemoss that has resurrection capacities: S. pilifera (from Mexico, Texas and New Mexico) and S. tamariscina (from Asia) are among other drought resistant spikemoss species sharing the same habit that are also sometimes sold as novelty plants. 

In the wild, S. lepidophylla can go fully dormant and remain in that state for years if necessary (although not the 50 or 100 years advertised by some suppliers), then recover when rains return. During prolonged drought, as a secondary survival strategy, it can even break off from its roots and become a tumbleweed, rolling away in the wind. This helps it spread its tiny spores here and there. 

Your Results

Resurrection plant expanding. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

When you purchase a resurrection plant, it looks thoroughly dead: a ball of dead, curled up leaves, but—miracle!—if you set it in a bowl of water, the ball opens up into a sort of flattened rosette in only a few hours. If you’re lucky and received a living plant, the leaves in the center will already be green or will slowly turn that color. You’ve brought it back to life! For a time.

Resurrection plant at purchase time. Photo:zulily.com

Most often, though, the plant is really dead and will remain brown even if it does expand. (Even dead resurrection plants roll up and unroll under changing humidity.) After it opens, you can take it out of water and let it dry again. It will then curl up into a ball. Then you can moisten it again and it will open yet again. And you can repeat this until it finally rots away. Of course, it is thoroughly dead at this point.

If you’re lucky, your resurrection plant will show green leaves rather than brown ones. Photo: Kristian Peters, Wikimedia Commons

And even if your plant does seem to show healthy green center leaves, the problem is that almost nobody actually succeeds in keeping it resurrected. 

If you had bought it potted up with an intact root system, that might be possible, but the plant you purchased was ripped out of the ground in the wild (not to worry, it’s not a threatened species), leaving it with few to no roots. Of course, it can’t possibly survive soaking in a bowl of water, as it is far from being an aquatic plant (yet salespeople insist that it needs no soil!), yet even if you pot it up, it’s generally overrun by mildew fairly quickly and soon rots away. 

The best thing to do with a resurrection plant (other than leave it in the store) is to have fun watching it open up, then toss it into the compost or wherever it is you put other dead plants. It’s certainly not a very attractive plant.

Regrowing It from Cuttings

Rooted cutting producing new rosettes. Photo: Natanda, houzz.com

Some people report success saving their resurrection plant by starting it from cuttings. When yours has “resurrected”, cut off some of the green stems in the center and soak them in a fungicide solution (otherwise they are very susceptible to rot!). Press the cuttings flat onto a pot of moist soil and cover with a clear plastic dome. Offer moderate light and room temperatures … and wait.

Often the cuttings just rot in spite of the fungicide treatment. Sometimes, though, after a month or so, they do root and begin to produce a small rosette of green leaves with healthy roots. 

But even if they do root, keeping such a rosette alive is a challenge. You first have to remove the dome gradually to acclimatize them to ambient conditions. The plant likes bright light and slightly moist soil, yet dry air (think “seasonally moist creek bed in the Chihuahuan Desert”). Your best chance would be to put it outdoors for the summer, then bring it indoors for the winter, letting it fully dry out at that season. (It won’t tolerate moisture during what should be its winter dry season.)

In general, the rooting technique fails miserably … but some people do succeed.

Best of luck with this, but I’ll stick to easier—and more attractive—plants!

6 thoughts on “The Resurrection Plant: More Dead Than Alive

  1. Margaret

    In NC we have a plant (native, I think) that we call ‘running cedar’, which shares some of the same properties. Any relation?

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