Posts Tagged ‘Ancient Plants’

Here in the northeast if you walk through the woods at this time of year-after a hard freeze but before snow covers the ground-you will find many evergreen plants growing on the forest floor that are very hard to see at other times of the year. One of these low growing plants might appear to be a small evergreen tree, but if it looks like the plant in the photo it is in the clubmoss family (Lycopodiaceae.) Though some club mosses look enough like evergreen seedlings to be called princess pine, ground pine, and ground cedar they bear no relation to pines or cedars.

Clubmosses don’t flower like pines and cedars but instead produce spores like a fern. Spores form in spike-like structures called sporophylls, which are the 2 yellowish “clubs” seen at the top of the plant in the photo. They reproduce by their spores, which can take 20 years to germinate, and by horizontal underground stems. If you look closely you can see that the leaves, called microphylls, resemble scales more than actual leaves. Clubmosses can be hard to identify-there are over 400 species-but I think the one I took the photo of is Lycopodium obscurum, or ground pine. Clubmosses will not grow where the temperature is too warm, so if a large colony is found in the forest that spot is very likely to be shaded and very cool. This is good to know when hiking on a hot August day.

Clubmosses have been around for awhile; fossil records show that they were here 200 million years ago and that some now extinct species reached 100 feet tall. They are thought to be the source of the coal that we burn today. More recently, the spores were used to control bleeding and the plants used in a medicinal tea by Native Americans. The spores contain a wax like substance that repels water and have also been used to soothe diaper rash and other skin ailments. Dried spores are extremely flammable and will explode in a blinding flash when lit. They are the source of the flash powder used in some stage pyrotechnics and were used in photography as an early form of what later became the flash bulb. The long and quite strong underground stems can be used in place of string or twine in emergencies. They become even stronger if allowed to dry.

I remember, not too far in the past, people collecting club mosses to make Christmas wreaths and earn extra money. Unfortunately that led to over collecting and club mosses are now on the endangered species list in many states. Two species of clubmoss, Sitka Clubmoss (Diphasiastrum sitchense) and Slender Bog Clubmoss (Lycopodiella appressa) are listed as “critically imperiled” in New Hampshire. Since it can take up to 20 years for spores to germinate-and they will only germinate under ideal conditions-clubmosses are plants that are better left alone.

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