Stepping off our sandy lane onto a thick cushion of fallen leaves, we don’t have to walk far to find an oasis of green beneath the young oaks, maples, pines and poplars. In the frigid temperatures and wet weather of January, tiny evergreen plants blanket this woodland floor. These are club mosses, plants whose ancestors existed almost 400 million years ago before flowering plants populated the earth. Along with massive tree ferns, the club mosses grew well over 100’ tall with trunk diameters of 5’. These ancient forests of giants lived in swamps during the age of coal, the Carboniferous era and their decay led to the coal fields of today.
The first club moss that we encounter in our woods, with its flat branches and the cedar-like appearance, is Running Cedar (Lycopodium digitatum). At this time of year, the tiny candles or clubs are full of spores and just brushing the plants will generate miniature yellow clouds. The plants also expand by rhizomes along the ground, thus the name Running Cedar. In this way, they can cover extensive areas of the forest floor if conditions are ideal. Our woods must provide what they need for the ground is covered with this variety.
Nearby, we recognize our other club moss that looks remarkably like a tiny pine tree (Lycopodium obscurum) or what I call Princess Pine. It grows about 6 – 8 inches off the ground in our woods but can grow larger. The Princess Pine reproduces by a rhizome as well so I suppose it could be called Running Pine.
The common name, club moss, describes the appendage a the tip of the plant, which produces spores for reproduction. The spores have a high oil content and have been used to coat pills and is still used in powders to sooth the skin. Native Americans used the spores for various medicinal purposes and early Americans and Europeans used them for a wide range of healing. Interesting, the plant is poisonous but not the spores. The spores are highly flammable and they were used in early photography to provide the needed flash.
A request was once made for some of our Princess Pine to be used as a church decoration. I gave my consent. But in learning more about the plant and how difficult it is to transplant or cultivate, I now protect our miniature evergreen forest, a mere shadow of its ancient relatives.
Ann Hohenberger, The Garden Club of Gloucester