Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Lycopodium – The Moss That Isn’t

Language. It’s supposed to make communication easier, but sometimes it ends up just confusing issues more. Take plant names, for example, specifically mosses. If I say “moss” to you, you probably picture some dark green, low-growing, soft groundcover in the woods. And for the most part, you’d be right. But what about reindeer moss? It’s not a moss at all; it’s a lichen. Clubmoss is another misnomer – the plant may actually look like a large moss, but it isn’t. In fact, it is more closely related to ferns than it is to true mosses.

Clubmosses, which belong to the family Lycopodiaceae, are vascular plants that do not have flowers and that reproduce sexually by means of spores (like mushrooms, ferns and true mosses). Clubmosses have stems, which true mosses don’t, and the sporophyte, at least, has real roots – true mosses don’t have roots.

Here at the Newcomb Visitor Interpretive Center, we have three very common clubmosses: Princess Pine (Lycopodium obscurum), Shining Clubmoss (L. lucidulum), and Stiff Clubmoss (L. anotinum). You can also find Running Clubmoss (L. clavatum) – this is the one pictured above.

Princess pine, as you might expect, looks a lot like a miniature conifer tree. Also called ground pine, at one time it was harvested extensively for holiday decorations. As with many wild harvesting “programs,” gatherers did not make much money for the time and effort they had to expend. As a result, when patches of the desired plant were found, they were often cleaned out. Such unsustainable harvesting practices resulted in many plants becoming rare. Today clubmosses are among the many native plants that are protected by law.

When I started my career as a naturalist, one of the first things I learned about lycopodium was that the spores were used historically for flash powder. We’ve all seen westerns, or other movies that portray life in the 1800s. Whenever you saw a photograph being taken in that time period, there was a guy (usually) with a big box camera draped in black cloth. He would hold up a t-shaped bar, tell everyone to hold really still, and then flash! bang! the cross bar would explode and the photograph was taken. The stuff that flashed was clubmoss spores. Like flour in a mill, the fine dust-like spores, which are very rich in oil, are highly flammable. Unlike flour, however, the spores burn fast and bright, but with little heat. No theater stages (flash powder was used to simulate lightning) or photo studios burned to the ground because of flash powder.

It turns out, however, that clubmosses had many more historical uses. According to a couple sources I found, the Woodland Crees would rub raw fish eggs into stiff clubmoss to separate them from their gelatinous membranes. After they were separated, the eggs were used to make fish-egg bread. It doesn’t appeal to me, but then I’ve never tried it – maybe it’s pretty good.

Clubmoss spores found their way into surgery as a dusting powder, and were even used to treat conditions like eczema. At one time the spores were popular as baby powder. This might be because they are water repellent. Apparently if you cover your hand with the spores and then submerge it in water, it will not get wet!

But that’s not all. Spores from L. complanatum, commonly called groundcedar, were used by the Blackfoot people as an antiseptic and to stop nosebleeds. They also used the entire plant as a mordant, which is a compound used to set dyes.

What about mystical powers? The Dakelh people of British Columbia at one time used clubmoss spores to determine if the sick would survive their illnesses. The divination process was simple: spores were dropped into a container of water. If they drifted in the direction of the sun, the patient had a good chance of survival. I’m not sure I’d want to rely on this for my own survival, but in a time when penicillin was unheard of and belief in the spirit world was strong, it might’ve made all the difference in a person’s will to live.

If you’d like to learn how to identify some of our local clubmosses, stop by the VIC and take the Browsing Botanist tour of the Rich Lake Trail. The guide booklet, which you can pick up at the front desk, will introduce you to these groundcovers. Once you’ve made their acquaintances, you will start to see them everywhere as a new window into the wild opens before your eyes.


Ellen Rathbone

Ellen Rathbone is by her own admission a "certified nature nut." She began contributing to the Adirondack Almanack while living in Newcomb, when she was an environmental educator for the Adirondack Park Agency's Visitor Interpretive Centers for nearly ten years.

Ellen graduated from SUNY ESF in 1988 with a BS in forestry and biology and has worked as a naturalist in New York, New Jersey, and Vermont.

In 2010 her work took her to Michigan, where she currently resides and serves as Education Director of the Dahlem Conservancy just outside Jackson, Michigan.

She also writes her own blog about her Michigan adventures.





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  1. Woodswalker says: