Plant biologists report that a species of tree fern found only in Panama reanimates its own dead leaf fronds, converting them into root structures that feed the mother plant. The fern, Cyathea rojasiana, reconfigures these “zombie leaves,” reversing the flow of water to draw nutrients back into the plant.

The findings are reported in the journal Ecology.

Jim Dalling in greenhouse with ferns
Plant biology professor James Dalling and his colleagues discovered that some tree ferns recycle their dead fronds into roots. The researchers call these repurposed fronds “zombie leaves.”
Fred Zwicky

This weird phenomenon occurs only after the leaves die and droop to the ground, said University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign plant biology professor James Dalling, who made the discovery with his team while studying a different plant in a Panamanian forest reserve. Dalling noticed that the fronds were strongly embedded in the soil and had sprouted a network of rootlets. Laboratory tests revealed that the zombie leaves were drawing nitrogen out of the soil.

Even after they are converted into roots, the wilted fronds look like decayed plant matter, which is probably why generations of plant biologists failed to notice that they were performing a life-sustaining task, Dalling said.

“This is a truly novel repurposing of tissue. And it’s distinct from what we know other ferns do,” he said.


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