Friday, June 25, 2021

Clubmoss: An Ancient Group of Plants

clubmossIf you have ever taken a hike or just walked through the woods, I guarantee you have seen this interesting group of understory plants. Clubmoss is a fern ally that includes horsetails, spikemosses, and quillworts. They are categorized as fern allies because of the combination of a spore-producing phase and a sexual phase. There are some 1,200 species worldwide. Inside the plant classroom clubmoss is referred to as Lycopodium which interoperates to lyco– wolf; podium– foot. Common names include ground pine, running pine, and even wolf claw clubmoss.

As one would guess, the name comes from its appearance. These little guys are perennial evergreens with many small leaves. These neat ancient plants are vascular plants, meaning they have specialized tissue to conduct photosynthesis and absorb water.  Plants are connected by horizontal stems that run shallowly below ground. Or in my observation, just below thick leaf cover not quite below ground. If you see many next to each other it is most likely all one plant. This form of plant growth is called a rhizomatic root system.

clubmossThey have an interesting life stage and spore release strategy that not many see outside a plant ecology class. In developing stages of reproduction and leading up to spore release they develop a symbiotic relationship with fungi. The fungi provide essential nutrients for the reproduction stage in exchange for carbohydrates.

This sexual stage may lie dormant for 7 years and take up to 15 years to reach sexual maturity. Some species of clubmoss reproduce asexually by underground stems or a “runner” where groups of stem cells detach and form new plants.

 

Evolution

Lycophytes (clubmosses) are believed to have evolved 410 million years ago, making them one of the earliest groups of vascular plants to utilize water and food separately by the use of special tissues called xylem and phloem. The xylem and phloem are features found in many plants today in particular trees. The xylem is the plant structure that conducts water and nutrients upward from the roots. Inversely the phloem is conduct products downward from the leaves.

Clubmosses along with large ferns inhabited swamps in the Carboniferous period of geological history. Clubmosses resembled trees and towered to heights of 100-135ft. The plants of this time dominated the land. Deposition and decay from these plants during the Carboniferous Period engineered the world’s coalfields and oil.

Human Use

Human use of clubmoss was numerous, with medical and decorative purposes and even for pyrotechnics. Native Americans used its spores and leaves for tea to treat alignments such as urinary tract infection, headaches, and inducing labor. Some cultures used the spores as an aphrodisiac (*Whistles*). The spores are hydrophobic, meaning it repels water, so, it was used as a powder for wounds and baby rashes in the 1800s and 1900s. Its hydrophobic properties were also used to coat pills to prevent sticking. Its high oil content made it useful during ceremonial purposes by Native Americans and in stage production and fireworks. Furthermore, clubmoss was used for decoration during Christmas and now is discouraged due to its long but fascinating life cycle.

Photo: Two species of clubmoss that are commonly found in Adirondack forests. Provided by Ken Johnston

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A native of Ticonderoga, Ken Johnston graduated from SUNY Brockport in 2015 with a combined degree in Terrestrial and Aquatic Ecology with minors in Business Administration and Chemistry. He has performed research on Great Lake wetlands, Finger Lake agricultural stream health, and harmful algal blooms and is working toward a master's degree in Biology. After graduation, he worked for Darrin Fresh Water Institute on the environmental monitoring program called The Jefferson Project. For the past couple of years, he has been working as a licensed NYS Wilderness Guide and boat captain on Lake George. Ken grew up loving the outdoors and can be found on the trails with his dog, Laikly.


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7 Responses

  1. Boreas says:

    Great article Ken!

    P.S. – have them work on your avatar picture…

  2. Charlie Stehlin says:

    Moss, ferns, lichen…..they are all such interesting ancient plant species. Clubmoss. These look familiar! Not only in the Adirondack woods but in old cemeteries can be found all sorts of the most interesting small plant species…mosses, ferns, lichen, many of them in isolated small groups or even just one or two wee specimens, while everywhere else on those same grounds are not to be found the same species. An interesting story above! To think all of the unseen species we kill off on a daily basis each time we run a bulldozer over yet another tax haven in the works. It’s a darned shame!

    • JB says:

      Charlie, what you describe–an isolated population of only a few individuals–is what botanists in NY call State Conservation Status Rank S1, S2 or S3, and there are actually clubmoss species in NY that are so rare that they are considered S1 (fewer than 5 populations). Some species are illegal to harvest under NY law. So, people should definitely not be harvesting clubmoss for Christmas wreaths.

  3. Joan Grabe says:

    A “tax haven in the works ? Lumber companies totally denuded much of the Adirondacks in the past. How many unknown species did they destroy before market forces and regulations put an end to their predations ? The good old days were not necessarily all that good ! And that goes for your comment about the Diversity banners in Indian Lake too !

  4. Charlie Stehlin says:

    “what you describe–an isolated population of only a few individuals–is what botanists in NY call State Conservation Status Rank S1, S2 or S3…”

    I never never thought about what you say JB, but I always know, when I come upon very individual, isolated plants in cemeteries, or other rural places where I roam….I always have a deep sense that they are very uncommon at the very least, and very old, or that they come from a very remote lineage. I take many photos of these individual plant species, and now after reading what you say above I think I’ll start taking more. Thank you for sharing.

  5. Charlie Stehlin says:

    “How many unknown species did they destroy before market forces and regulations put an end to their predations ? The good old days were not necessarily all that good!”

    > I’m with you on that Joan, but they were most certainly far less complex than they are nowadays….by far!

    “And that goes for your comment about the Diversity banners in Indian Lake too !”

    >  Am not sure where you’re going with this! 

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