It’s a Mini-tree! It’s a Wildflower! It’s a Moss! It’s a Fern!

by Barbara Walvoord

(Originally printed in Lathrop Lamp Post Jan. 19, 2017)

Walking in our woods in winter, I often see these strange plants that look like miniature evergreen trees. Wondering about their name, I looked in my tree book. Nope.  Hmm.  My wildflower book.  Nope.  So I asked north campus resident Helen Armstrong, who knows a heap about native plants, and she said, it’s Lycopodium obscurum, commonly called tree club moss, though my web sources classify it as a fern or “fern ally.”

The ancestors of our tree club moss were100 feet tall, growing 300 million years ago in the swamps of the Carboniferous geological period, rising among the early amphibians, spiders, and 800 types of cockroaches, and then falling, eventually to form coal.

The oily spores on those golden spikes explode with a bright flash when thrown into flames, impressing audiences of stone age magicians as well as modern theater productions, magic shows, and fireworks displays.

The spore dust acts something like talcum powder to coat medical gloves and condoms.  It covers some pills and stabilizes ice cream. Though poisonous, the plant parts have  been used to treat skin irritation, fever, and memory loss

Our Lathrop club moss feeds many kinds of wild life.  It also feeds the heart, as, along with our ferns, wintergreen, and baby pines, it greens our winter forest floor. It’s rare enough to be state listed in New York and Indiana.  It spreads not only by its spores, but also by underground rhizomes and by underground sexual organs. It prospers when we remove invasive plants and avoid disturbing the soil.

To see a large patch of this beautiful, ancient plant, take the east campus wide woods path from the blue shed (at the end of Bassett Brook Drive) through the woods to the meadow. Then cross the meadow to its far left corner. Enter the woods to the right about 50 yards, and you’ll find a whole carpet of club moss near a lovely vernal pool. Trail maps:


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