Princess Pine and other clubmosses

Princess Pine and other clubmosses

Brightening our winter palette

In the winter, when the weather can be dreary, green things like mosses, ferns, and fern “allies” add interest to our winter woodland walks. Fern allies include the horsetails and a group of ancient, ankle-high plants called clubmosses or lycopodiums.

Clubmosses are native, perennial, evergreen plants with tiny leaves. There are more than 350 species of them worldwide, with names like princess pine (pictured), ground cedar, and tree clubmoss. Their miniscule leaves are very similar in appearance to small evergreen needles, giving the impression of a tiny pine tree. Their common name stems from their superficial similarity to mosses, and the fact that they often have club-like structures that produce spores. The genus name, Lycopodium – from lycos, meaning “wolf,” and podus, meaning “foot” – refers to the way the forked branches resemble the shape of a wolf’s paw.

About 400 million years ago, these now diminutive plants of the forest grew to more than 100 feet tall. Along with ferns, they dominated the swamps of the Carboniferous period. They were among the first land plants to develop specialized tissues that could transport water and food.

With a life cycle similar to that of ferns, many clubmosses can start new colonies of plants asexually from spores, which are grown either at the base of the leaves or on long candle-like projections called strobili (see photo). If you brush past these strobili in late fall, you may see clouds of yellow spores released into the air. The spores land on the soil and grow into a different form of the plant that is shaped like a single tiny leaf. This form of the plant is rarely seen, partly because it generally lacks chlorophyll and lives in association with fungi underground.

These tiny plants produce both male and female cells, which unite to reproduce sexually and grow into the clubmosses we are familiar with.

For millions of years, vast deposits of clubmosses accumulated on the earth’s surface. They lived, died, decomposed and were compressed by new growth and eroded sediment. Today we dig them up as coal and burn them for heat, releasing the sun’s energy they absorbed over a quarter of a billion years ago.

The spores, which ignite with a dramatic flash, were used by indigenous tribes for ceremonial purposes. Known as “vegetable sulfur,” they were later gathered commercially for use as flash powder in old-time photography, in theatrical productions, in fireworks (up until the 1950s), and in chemistry labs.

Clubmosses are slow-growing plants, and unsustainable harvesting practices led to a decline in many species. Thankfully, concern among individuals and watchdog groups has resulted in legal protection for these as well as other native plants.

patch of princess pine in the woods

A patch of clubmoss known as Princess Pine growing in Bristol.