A declining rate of recovery following disturbance has been proposed as an important early warning for impending tipping points in complex systems. Despite extensive theoretical and laboratory studies, this ‘critical slowing down’ remains largely untested in the complex settings of real-world ecosystems. Here, we provide both observational and experimental support of critical slowing down along natural stress gradients in tidal marsh ecosystems. Time series of aerial images of European marsh development reveal a consistent lengthening of recovery time as inundation stress increases. We corroborate this finding with transplantation experiments in European and North American tidal marshes. In particular, our results emphasize the power of direct observational or experimental measures of recovery over indirect statistical signatures, such as spatial variance or autocorrelation. Our results indicate that the phenomenon of critical slowing down can provide a powerful tool to probe the resilience of natural ecosystems.