Ferns are fascinating! Although we generally associate ferns with the rainforest or other places with lots of water, ferns also thrive in arid ecosystems, such as the desert and the chaparral. I study how ferns can thrive in these dry areas. What adaptations allow them to survive? What strategies make them successful in places where other plants would die?
As an undergraduate, I studied the drought tolerance of ferns in southern California under the direction of Dr. Steve Davis at Pepperdine University. Southern California is a mediterranean-type ecosystem, which means the area is subject to long dry summers. The plant community in southern California is called the “chaparral.” The chaparral is dominated by evergreen sclerophyllous (tough-leaf) shrubs. These shrubs have various strategies to cope with long summer droughts every year. Dr. Davis observed that several species of ferns grow among the chaparral shrubs, implying that the ferns may also have strategies to survive the long summer drought.
Over the last few years, we have studied various aspects of these ferns. We discovered that eight of these fern species have diverse strategies to cope with the long summer drought. Our study of fern seasonal water relations was published in the American Journal of Botany (available here).
Perhaps the most unusual ferns in the chaparral are the “resurrection” ferns. These ferns completely dry out during the summer drought – appearing completely dead – and then resurrect their leaves, stems, and roots when it rains. As a PhD student, I have chosen to focus on strategies and mechanisms unique to these resurrection ferns. Which parts of the fern resurrect first? How much water do they need to resurrect? How does water move through a resurrecting plant?
Another unusual group of ferns is the salt-tolerant mangrove ferns. Only three species of salt-tolerant ferns have been discovered, and their strategies for living in salt water remain a mystery. To study these ferns, I am working in Australia where these ferns grow in abundance. Stay tuned for what we find!
To learn more about each of these projects, click on the links below.