This summer I have seen beautiful carpets of clubmoss.
Clubmosses are in the family Lycopodiaceae. They are among my favorite plants because they are so simple and so pretty. They grow on long runners that spread out and form unique, trailing patterns or four-inch thick tapestries on the forest floor.
Like ferns and true mosses, clubmosses prefer moist, rich soil beneath a mixture of deciduous and coniferous trees that provide leaf litter for nutrients but shade to hold moisture. Clubmosses are evergreen and show brightly from first snowmelt in spring until first snowfall in winter.
The high moisture in the forest this year has produced excellent conditions for several species that grow together in extensive patches.
As a child I was taught the name Princess Pine for what many people know of as Ground Cedar. It looks like a forest of miniature cedar trees, with flat scale-like leaves pressed tightly against each other like the scales of an Arborvitae. Ground Cedar is a bright, glossy spring green in color.
Tree Clubmoss looks like miniature trees but stands more upright than Ground Cedar and is a darker green.
Running Clubmoss is also known as Wolf’s Claws and looks like a furry vine. Usually rhizomes grow beneath loose leaf litter but long runners can also grow on the surface of the ground, reaching many feet in length.
This week the most stunning of all was the Shining Clubmoss. I walked through a section of forest that had wide swaths on both sides of the trail and it literally shone beneath the mixed beech and spruce/balsam canopy. The colony was so thick and healthy my boots were covered up to my ankles in lush, soft green.
Clubmoss is special for many reasons — it is a vascular plant that is among the ancient plants of the earth.
Marion Lobstein, writing for the Prince William Wildflower Society, commented that, “Some 300-plus million years ago, tree forms of both clubmosses and horsetails along with ferns dominated the great coal swamps of the Carboniferous geological period. Tree forms of tree clubmosses that once reached heights of 100 feet have left an excellent fossil record.”
Imagine a forest of 100-foot-tall clubmosses, ferns and horsetails.
Most clubmosses reproduce by spores that grow on tall candle-like structures at the ends of the short branches. When they are dry the spores are highly flammable; if they are blown into a flame they create a bright, rapid-burning flash without generating heat. The spores of clubmoss were made into powder that was used in Victorian theater and magic shows to create flashes on stage and also used in early flash photography.
Unfortunately it is illegal to harvest clubmosses because they were extensively harvested for the dry spores and for decorative roping and wreaths. Most species are protected in New York and considered “exploitably vulnerable native plants,” which are likely to become threatened if harvest is not controlled.
These are definitely plants to treasure.
Elizabeth Lee is a licensed guide who lives in Westport. She leads recreational and educational programs focused in the Champlain Valley throughout the year. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.