Clubmoss is an Ancient and Mysterious Fern Ally

One cold afternoon this past February, I was walking in the woods behind our home and decided not to take my usual path, when I came upon an unusual patch of blue-green colored ground cover. A garden club associate known for her ninja skills as a Japanese gardener, suggested that I seek out Beverly to identify this mysterious ground cover. Using her deductive reasoning skills finely tuned after years of studying Sherlock Holmes, she consulted with the Georgia Native Plant Society to expose this mystery ground cover as an ancient species known as clubmoss of the genus Lycopodium.

Clubmosses are an ancient group of vascular plants. Most species of clubmosses prefer cool, shady, and moist woodlands. They are not true mosses, which are non-vascular. Clubmosses are low growing, with small, scale-like leaves and can be identified by their resemblance to miniature pine and cedar trees.

Clubmosses are perennial evergreen plants with numerous small leaves. Individual plants connected by horizontal stems that run above ground (runners) or below ground (rhizomes); the actual roots are rather shallow. None of the clubmosses are flowering plants, but all are vascular plants with an interesting strategy of releasing spores at a life stage that few people see. Patiently, it can take up to 20 years for a clubmoss to mature and produce spores.

During this endeavor, I subsequently discovered that clubmosses are of the diverse group of plants called “Fern Allies” which are seedless vascular plants and not true ferns but like ferns, a “Fern Ally” propagates by shedding spores to initiate their life cycle.

Some say that clubmosses originated over 400 million years ago, long before the dinosaurs, and variety of over one thousand species of clubmosses survive today. An interesting fact is that much of our modern supply of coal is the fossilized wood of tree clubmosses, but a change in climate during the Pennsylvanian period led to the demise of those great clubmoss forests. During the Carboniferous period, about 350–300 million years ago, clubmosses grew as high as 135 feet with diameters of up to 6 feet.

These fern allies were used in dyeing fabrics and other items. Interestingly, clubmoss spores are very flammable due to their high oil content and ignite with a bright flash of light. They were used in flash photography, in stage productions, and in fireworks (up until the 1950s). Indian cultures used the spores for ceremonial purposes, when medicine men tossed the spores into a fire for a flash of light.

There are numerous medical uses of clubmoss from being used as a pain reliever to reducing flatulence and other digestive tract problems but unfortunately, about 15 percent of humans are allergic to clubmoss spores.

Species of clubmoss include shining clubmoss (Huperzia lucidula), bristly clubmoss (Spinulum annotinum, also called stiff clubmoss), princess pine (Dendrolycopodium obscurum), and staghorn clubmoss (Lycopodiella cernua, not shown). Watch for these species as you walk through moist, shady woodlands.

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