The Magic of Club Mosses

The other night I had a dream of princess pine, the clubmoss that looks like a perfectly formed miniature tree that was shining like a cascading emerald in the snow. Reflecting on the dream I realized that I had not written about Lycopodium, a family of vascular plants that are not mosses but appeared on earth around the same time, 400 million years ago

Mosses are non- vascular plants that have neither roots or stems that come from the family Bryophyta. According to Dr. Robin Wall Kimmerer, a plant scientist, they were the first green plants to colonize land after lichens (pictured below).

Clubmosses (Lycophyta) are vascular plants that have shallow roots, true stems and one of the ways they reproduce is by developing sporophytes. These look like furry candles as they rise out of the top of the plants. Look for the spores or ‘candles’ to rise above the plant on a single stem during the late summer or fall.

 The family is closely related to ferns.

It is a mystery to me how Lycopodium got the name club moss. The two don’t resemble one another at all except for the fact that both are green all year long. Club mosses are a few inches high and have runners with roots attached that snake along the surface of the earth in areas free of foot traffic.  Real mosses hug the earth or tree attaching themselves with rhizoids. Learning how to recognize  ground hugging plants with fuzzy evergreen bristles (small simple needle -like leaves that cover the stems), trees or umbrellas whose roots creep along the forest floor will help Licopodium survive because heavy hiking through areas where they grow will kill them just as heavy foot traffic kills forested mosses. Logging, of course destroys not only the plant but its connection to the mycelial network that is itself annihilated. In this area we are fortunate to have one species that is very rare that I have identified in my favorite forest.  

The ones I am most familiar with occur frequently in coniferous forests, some in hardwood forests, and others in mountainous areas as well as marshlands (running club moss is more common in most places around here), my favorite being princess pine because it looks like a miniature tree. This species likes to grow in lowlands in rich moist soil. All clubmosses need some protection from the heat of the summer sun, so tree thinning can put these plants at risk. 

When I first came here forty years ago there were no clubmosses anywhere in the woods, but the trees were saplings except for the hemlocks; now I have an abundance of running clubmoss, ground cedar, and princess pine probably because the trees have grown and I have left the forest alone, allowing it to re wild itself/ herself/ himself. (I have developed a bias against our need to “it” plants, to keep them separate from ourselves, believing it’s one way we continue to give ourselves permission to use nature as a commodity). 

We share more than 50 percent of our DNA with plants. The building blocks and shape of DNA molecules in humans, plants, and every living thing is the same. It’s the order of A,C,G,T that differs. All plants are our relatives – literally. Would you refer to your child or beloved relative as an ‘it’? Somehow, I doubt it.

When I was a child I made Christmas wreaths from ground cedar, the club moss that looks somewhat like an umbrella, because In Pound Ridge we didn’t have balsam. I didn’t know then that harvesting ground cedar would become a commercial business with overharvesting creating a need for these plants to be protected.  Now many states including Maine have restrictions on collecting club mosses because of human greed.

Clubmosses are important in the fossil records (today we have approximately 1000 species world-wide). In the past these plants grew as tall as trees, eventually  dying, compacting and forming the coal and oil deposits that we draw from today. Finite. Resources, that we will soon run out of. This family is the oldest group of vascular plants that remain extant. Just imagine what they could teach us if we were capable of listening…

One fascinating aspect of these plants is that they can be used to make sound waves visible. Another curious fact is that when water is covered with the spores’ powder if a person inserts a finger into the mixture, it will come out dry! A third quality is that the dry spores are quite flammable and can be used to start a fire or create a magical illusion.I think these ground covers are often overlooked; they are fascinating plants –  and many people don’t even know they exist.

The next time you are in a healthy forest – one that has not been logged recently – (after the snow disappears) pay attention to what’s going on beneath, around your feet and you will be rewarded by seeing these most ancient relations of ours creeping across the woodland floor.

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