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Club mosses: the other evergreens! - Piscataquog Land Conservancy

Club mosses: the other evergreens!

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Club mosses - photos by Gary Samuels

If you walk in the woods in early spring you may see little green ‘trees’ breaking through the leaf litter and receding snow.  Some are branched, their fan-like branches even resembling little pagodas, while others are unbranched, erect and spiky. These little trees are the other evergreens:  mosses, ferns and clubmosses. As the snow melts away, and before the first leaves of Canada Mayflower, our earliest wildflower, are up extensive colonies of evergreen clubmosses will stand out in the forest.

Also known as ground-cedar and creeping pine, clubmosses are among the most primitive of the vascular plants, first appearing in the fossil record around 400 million years ago.  They may be tiny today, but during the Carboniferous period (some 350 million years ago) clubmosses could attain a height of 100 feet!  Clubmoss get their name from the resemblance of their tiny leaves to leaves of mosses, and from the fact that their spores are produced in club-like branches called strobili.  Like ferns, clubmosses never have flowers.  They reproduce by spores that germinate to produce a very small plantlet (gametophyte) that has half the number of chromosomes of the mature plant.  Unlike mosses that have no circulatory/transport/vascular system, clubmosses are vascular plants. They have shallow roots, and stems that sometimes scramble through the litter or, as rhizomes, radiate below ground.  The main spread of clubmosses is through vegetative expansion of their creeping stems.

Clubmosses are found in most climatic regions of the world, from the humid tropics to the boreal, and worldwide there are 10-15 genera and 350-400 species of clubmosses.   About thirteen species of clubmosses occur in New England.  In the past these species were all classified in one genus, Lycopodium (translated from Latin means ‘wolf foot’), but today they are divided among six genera.  Depending upon the species, clubmosses occur in forests, forest edges, meadows, and bogs and are often found in sites that have been disturbed by man.  They are certainly conspicuous on our forest floors!

Humans have used clubmosses for many purposes. Spores of clubmosses can be purchased and have been used in teas to treat urinary tract problems, diarrhea, headaches, and skin ailments. The spores also repel water and for this reason have been used as a powder in skin rashes, even on the bottoms of babies. The spores have been used in dying yarns. Their high oil content makes them highly flammable. For this reason they have been used in the past as fireworks and flash photography.  Clubmosses are quite pretty and green at Christmas, but resist that desire to make a Christmas wreath or other decoration out of them because these plants are very slow growing.  It can take up to fifteen years for their reproductive cycle to be completed, so once it’s pulled up, its return will be a long time comingl 

Spring is here, and urge to get out of your winter’s hibernation is becoming too strong to resist.  The snow will soon be gone, or mostly gone, from our forests.  Here and there colonies of clubmosses will stand out against the brown of the leaf litter, especially when the sun shines on them.  Go out and enjoy this first burst of spring!  Have some fun, and watch the clubmosses as their life-cycle unfolds in front of you!

Story and photos by Gary Samuels

Gary is a retired plant pathologist who serves on PLC’s Board of Trustees, and chairs our Land Protection Committee.  He and his wife Patty live in Deering.