Lycopodiums - forest floor plants

By Kate Crowley
It is the first week of November, the leaves are off the trees, but the ground below is as green and lush looking as it was in August. And I still have flowers blooming next to the deck; a weird feeling for lifelong Minnesotans.  I will not complain about the mild temperatures because I know that eventually cold and wintery weather will arrive, but that doesn’t change the feeling of abnormality that this autumn weather creates, especially for those of us who study nature and the complex dance of the seasons. 
Besides the green grass, which will eventually fade to brown under a layer of leaves and snow, there is green on the forest floor which will remain throughout the winter months, even as a blanket of white covers it.  I walked through our woods the other day with my friend Cindy and she pointed to some of the plants in this group.  She asked, “What are these? They’re so pretty”.  She was referring to a cluster of Princess Pine, scientifically known as a member of the Lycopodium family, which is also described as Club Moss.  Nearby were some branching arms of  Running Ground Pine – another member of the Lycopodium/Club Moss family.   These have always reminded me of chenille pipe cleaners. 
This family of plants is not ferns, nor moss. Rather, they are an ancient evergreen plant that has found ways to survive millions of years of change on this planet. These are the descendants of plants that covered the ground when dinosaurs roamed. Some forms grew to over 100 feet, based on the fossil record. Eventually they were buried and became the coal that we dig up from the ground today; carbonized plants. 
All of these plants have club-shaped stems, with simple, needle-like or scale-like leaves. Growing upright from the ends of the stems are the sporophylls – the reproductive portion of the plant where the yellow-tan spores are produced and released.  Having spores rather than seeds identifies this plant as very early form on the evolutionary scale.
Spores float on the wind and will germinate once they land on good soil, but this can be a risky and extremely slow process, taking as along as twenty years to complete the cycle. Club Mosses have evolved so that they can also propagate by sending out underground runners, something like the fungi family does with its hyphae.  This process can be exceedingly slow, taking up to twenty years to complete.
The pollen of these plants has some very unique qualities that humans have put to use for centuries and still use today.  Probably the most surprising is its flammability.  Once this was discovered, probably by accident, it was collected and used in fireworks.  Early photographers discovered that the same volatile behavior of the pale yellow pollen could be used to create a ‘flash’ when a photo was taken.  We have all seen images on film of a man with his head under a black sheet, holding a device up in his hands and when he presses the shutter on the camera there is a mini-explosion; pollen from a Club Moss. 
The pollen also is water resistant, which led the Chinese to use it to coat pills so that would not adhere to one another.  There have been countless homeopathic uses for this plant group’s pollen. It was used by Native Americans and Europeans alike, for treatment of urinary tract problems, diarrhea and other digestive tract problems, headaches, skin rashes, wounds and for inducing labor in pregnancy, to name just a few. 
More recently these evergreen plants have found favor in Christmas wreaths and garlands, so much so that they were put on Protected Native Plants List in New York State.  Knowing their status in other states, makes me feel even more fortunate to have them growing on our property.  Like so many things in nature, once an economic value has been placed on something it stimulates humans to collect or consume it to near extinction.

These are not plants that will easily submit to propagation.  They are slow growing and have a complex relationship with various fungi that live in the soil and provide specialized nutrition.  Most of the Club Mosses we see are found in primarily pine forests, but certain varieties are also found in mixed conifer/hardwood forests.  While you are able, look for that telltale green plant growing close to the ground and after the snow falls, use your hands to scrape away some to see if you can find it again; a welcome and ancient sight of life in a long winter season.  


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