A century ago, folks went to woods in the winter to make festive wreaths and garlands for the holiday season. Children were often sent out to gather the “running pine” for this purpose, a name still used for the group of plants botanists call clubmosses. All of them do “run” (though perhaps “creep” would be a better word for it) by trailing horizontal rootstocks, or rhizomes, along the surface of the ground, or beneath it. The vertical stems, that look like tiny pine or cedar trees, sprout from these “runners.” So it was easy to collect a whole colony of lustrous evergreen plants just by pulling their rhizomes up from the forest floor. Not surprisingly, this practice led to the disappearance of clubmosses from many of our forests.
Nowadays, like most kinds of ferns, clubmosses are protected from picking by New York State law. So when the forest floor is covered by brown leaves, and then by snow, we are once again pleasantly surprised on our walks in the woods by the vibrant green of clubmosses. All of the eight species in our area belong to same genus, Lycopodium (which derives from two Greek words meaning “wolf’s foot”). Two of the most common are ground (or running) cedar, with scale-like leaves like its namesake, and tree clubmoss (also called ground pine), with upright stems that really suggest miniature pine trees. They are actually much more closely related to ferns, and like ferns they reproduce by means of spores. A closer look at ground pine or cedar reveals the slender pale yellow spikes at their tips, branching like tiny candelabra. In the fall, brushing against these spikes releases clouds of spores like yellow smoke. Sometimes spores are still present into early winter. Collecting them yields a dry powder, once used by Europeans and native Americans alike in herbal medicine, as a styptic and coagulant to stop bleeding, and to prevent skin chafing in infants, among other uses. In pharmacy, pills have been dusted with clubmoss spore powder to keep them from sticking together. Perhaps most surprising of all is the use made of the spores of these unassuming little plants in photography and in the theatre. Highly inflammable, they were the first flash powder for taking pictures, or for producing stage effects like lightning flashes.
Clubmosses belong to an ancient lineage of plants. Though miniscule today, 250-million years ago their relatives dominated the swamp forests of the world as towering trees. Those must have been silent forests, with no birds yet to fill the steamy air with song. Insects were practically the only animals around, some of them giants like dragonflies with three-foot wingspreads, and six-inch cockroaches. The remains of these tree clubmosses, along with now-extinct seed ferns and the tree-sized ancestors of modern ferns and horsetails, covered and squeezed by mud and changed chemically, became the coal beds of today. It’s ironic that as we continue to burn coal, releasing the carbon stored for a quarter-of-a-billion years in those fossil plants, we are creating a climate that may start to resemble, in our part of the world, the hot and humid conditions in which those plants grew. Giant ferns and clubmosses thrived in the world of the Coal Age, but it would probably not be possible for their descendants, along with many other species of plants and animals, to survive in it. As for us, the species bringing on this change, do we really want to find out for ourselves what that world was like?
Whenever I see clubmosses, I am cheered by the ecosystem’s ability to renew itself, given enough time. Our Hudson Valley forests have been cleared, usually more than once, for logging and for agriculture, often to pasture cattle and sheep. The evergreen part of a clubmoss, with its spore-bearing cones, is the result of a twenty year life cycle. When a bed of clubmoss is trampled by livestock or machinery, uprooted by eager hands, or simply dies out when the moisture and shade it needs is gone, it can take nearly a century for another colony to reestablish itself. Wherever we find them, clubmosses tell us of the forest healing itself, and that’s something to feel good about.
Richard Parisio has worked as an interpretive naturalist for over 35 years, in the Everglades, Pocono Mountains, at Assateague Island, and, since 1984, in the Catskills and Hudson valley. He currently teaches school classes at Mohonk Preserve and leads tours of Slabsides and nature walks at the John Burroughs Sanctuary for school classes, elder hostels and other groups.