Resurrection Palm

A year before the fire, after first pruning.


Forty years ago, in my first semester of college, I bought some plants to furnish the room. The dorms were dim and dogeared, depressing. Plants were cheaper than chairs, so I picked some up at a campus sale, all in little 4″ pots. For a few bucks they brought a little life into the place. At least for a while. The room was so dark, most of them died by the end of the first year.

One, though, managed to hang on. An odd little thing, just a grey scaly bulb the size of a billiard ball, with skin like an elephant, half buried in the soil. A stout trunk tapered up from the bulb, topped with a pom-pom of grassy green leaves. It looked like something right out of Dr. Seuss. A botany major friend determined it was a ponytail palm. I became rather fond of it. Frond of it?

The next year I moved off campus and it came with me, suffering mightily for the rest of my college career – knocked over by inebriated housemates, dug up and defecated on by ill-behaved cats, neglected when I went away for holidays. Even stayed home alone the summer I went abroad. It survived all that, and eventually outgrew the original pot, earning a splurge on a new larger non-plastic container.

I left college, and the plant came with me.

Years went by and wherever I went the plant went, too. Cars and furniture and clothes and jobs got shed along the way, dead husks shucked off like snake skins, but after each purge the plant remained. If I dug through all the photos of my life over the past 40 years, this one odd thing would keep popping up in the background like a silent Forrest Gump:

  • In a cabin on the York River where I had my first wooden sailboat, sitting on the old grain scale that served for an end table.
  • In the apartment in downtown Atlanta just off Peachtree Street, where I squatted under a tree next to John Lee Hooker playing the blues in Piedmont Park, and saw R.E.M. in a bar in Athens for $5, which included a pitcher of beer.
  • On the iron balcony of a pink victorian in the historic district of Savannah, where church bells chimed on Sunday mornings and Spanish Moss collected on the railings, and finches twittered in the aviary I built for them that summer when the Challenger exploded with a teacher aboard.
  • In the basement of my grandmother’s house in Richmond, when Apple and Microsoft started marketing the first viable desktop computers, and the Berlin Wall came down.
  • There in the attic in Richmond when I logged onto the World Wide Web for the first time, and stayed up all night exchanging messages with people across the world over a dialup modem.
  • In the background, a little bigger now, when my daughters were born, and learned to walk and swim and ride a bike.
  • In Scottsville, where they played soccer and finished high school and went off to college themselves.
  • In the sunroom where Terri and I drank coffee and planned trips to the West Coast or the Low Country.

All the while that funny little plant kept going, eventually filling a large oriental porcelain pot the size of a bucket, standing in the corner so tall it brushed the 9 foot ceilings in our house.

Until the night of the fire.





A week after the fire.


When we walked through the house the next day, all the plants were wilted, black like everything else. That night it got down to 16 degrees. Though heat from the fire kept the whole house warm for a day, it dipped below freezing every night the following week. There was no power and no heat in the house. Everything froze.

Seven days after the fire, I gave Doug a tour of the damage. When we came to this plant – black and wilted, covered in soot –he said, you know, that’s a pretty big root ball, it might be OK, maybe you could save it?

So a few days later I took it out back, lopped off the stalk, and stuck it in the neighbor’s spare room with the other smokey things we hoped to save. A month after that, I brought it to the cottage, still bare and black, and set it near the window and watered it.


Two months after the fire.


A month later still, two months after the fire, I noticed a small lump on the stalk. Then, a few days later, a tiny spud of green broke through.



I tipped the pot over and let all the black sooty water drain out, added some fresh soil. A week later, another spud appeared, then another.






Now, there are several sprouts of green, and it seems this tough old plant refuses to die.






When I lived in Savannah, I discovered a remarkable native plant called “Resurrection Fern“. It spreads out along the top of big Live Oak limbs forming a fringe of little bonsai forests.




Resurrection Fern after a rain.


An epiphyte, it has no root system, since there’s no soil where it grows. It clings to the bark and survives in the humid southern air on nutrients in the dust and rain dripping down the limbs.

In periods between rains it turns grey and shrivels up like origami ashes, losing up to 97% of it’s moisture and going dormant. But it revives and turns vivid green again within hours after the first splash of rain. Most plants die after losing only 10% of their water, and don’t come back. These plants could remain dormant without water for over a century, and still revive.

Very impressive, these little ferns.

So I’m christening this tough and homely house plant of mine the Resurrection Palm.



8 Replies to “Resurrection Palm”

  1. That’s a beautiful story. I have a cactus just like that. It must be 25 years old, also came in a four inch pot. Loses its leaves from time to time, but keeps on going. Yours must be even tougher! I hope that means good times ahead for you.

  2. Great story. Reminds me of the Bald Cypress I grew from a twig in my back yard. My wife wanted it transplanted so the “landscapers” just pulled it out of the ground. No dirt. Just naked roots. By then it was about 8 feet tall. The entire top of it just died so I cut it off. Over time it sent out shoots from the trunk stump. Guess what, one of the shoots turned north and over time became the apical meristem. Now at about 20 feet you can hardly tell that at one point the trunk was just a little horizontal shoot.

  3. Ha, thanks. Odd that some things are so resilient, while other are so fragile. Cypress and cactus are both tough nuts. My other grandmother, who grew up in the Dismal Swamp, kept a cypress knee as a momento of her youth. I always suspected if we put it in water it again it would send up shoots. She was like that.

  4. Barry, I hadn’t visited your blog in a while. Life has dealt me a few challenges as well. Your blog has been an inspiration to me even though I don’t comment much. Watching you build the melonseed skiffs made me think that I too might be able to build a boat. I was floored when I saw the pics of the fire, but inspired once again as I saw you triumph again with your computer data. Now here’s this story of the resurrection palm. We moved ourselves last winter, and had to leave behind my beloved herb garden, (wasn’t going to try and transplant in December). There was 7 year old rosemary, thyme, chives, dill weed, sage, oregano, parsley, along with a self perpetuating cilantro patch, (I don’t think it’s supposed to do that). Here I am inspired again. This was a remarkable story of resiliency and as I near the end of my own build I hope once again to make it to the MASCF this year and possibly meet you and shake your hand. However, if life prevents that from happening know that you have been a tremendous inspiration. Wishing you all the best as you forge ahead!

  5. I’ve been greatly enjoying your videos for over a year up here on the cold North Atlantic coast of NH. I’ve no woodworking skills, but used to surf and windsurf and just found myself an old Sunfish. Quick question– I’ll be in Tacoma Park, Md. the first week of May, 2019. Never been this far south! Will spend some time visiting Annapolis. Any suggestions as to where to go and see some small traditional sailing craft?
    Keep up the excellent work!

    1. Hey Pat, glad you have you down from the snowy north. Lots of BIG boats in Annapolis. Some small ones, too, but they can be hard to find. If you get that far and want to see some traditional small sailing craft, the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum in St. Michaels is well worth the trip. It’s about an hour from Annapolis. A full working boat shop where they do restorations, and many boats on display, both in the water and on land. Some small traditional boats in the floating fleet you can even rent by the hour to take for a spin. The Log Canoes will race from Annapolis to there and back at the end of May. If you happen to get somewhere you can see that, there’s nothing quite like it.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *