BACKGROUND AND AIMS Extraxylary helical cell wall thickenings in vascular plants are not well documented, except for those in orchid velamen tissues which have been studied extensively. Reports on their occurrence in ferns exist, but detailed information is missing. The aim of this study is to focus on the broad patterns of structure and composition and to study the taxonomic occurrence of helical cell wall thickenings in the fern family Aspleniaceae. METHODS Structural and compositional aspects of roots have been examined by means of light, electron, epifluorescence and laser scanning confocal microscopy. To assess the taxonomical distribution of helical cell wall thickenings a molecular phylogenetic analysis based on rbcL sequences of 64 taxa was performed. KEY RESULTS The helical cell wall thickenings of all examined species showed considerable uniformity of design. The pattern consists of helical, regularly bifurcating and anastomosing strands. Compositionally, the cell wall thickenings were found to be rich in homogalacturonan, cellulose, mannan and xyloglucan. Thioacidolysis confirmed our negative phloroglucinol staining tests, demonstrating the absence of lignins in the root cortex. All taxa with helical cell wall thickenings formed a monophyletic group supported by a 100 % bootstrap value and composed of mainly epiphytic species. CONCLUSIONS This is the first report of non-lignified pectin-rich secondary cell walls in ferns. Based on our molecular analysis, we reject the hypothesis of parallel evolution of helical cell wall thickenings in Aspleniaceae. Helical cell wall thickenings can mechanically stabilize the cortex tissue, allowing maximal uptake of water and nutrients during rainfall events. In addition, it can also act as a boundary layer increasing the diffusive pathway towards the atmosphere, preventing desiccation of the stele of epiphytic growing species.