Lycopodia On My Mind

A walk in the woods can almost always turn a gray winter day into an enjoyable adventure, especially when I am on a mission. Down the trail, a stout, orderly stand of red pine (Pinus resinosa), years ago planted by my brother, provides a haven for rabbits in the underbrush as well as a heart-stopping moment when a grouse explodes out of a drift in front of me.

I go deeper into the woods and find that conditions are right for a little phenomenon I call ‘snow shedding’. It requires a layer of new snow combined with a soft breeze or a squirrel scampering through the boughs above, warm boots, and enough patience to stand still for a few minutes. A silent evergreen stand, far from roads or noise is ideal.

First, I listen for a soft whoosh, then look around to find a cascade of snow sliding from the branches. Often one shed will produce another from the same tree or those nearby. Sometimes the shedding tree is the one I am standing beneath, resulting in a sudden gasp as snow avalanches onto my head and down my neck; much more dramatic if I’m looking up when it occurs. A single shed usually lasts just a few seconds, but can progress around a stand of trees for 20 minutes or more. Then the breeze is gone, the temperature shifts, or the air pressure changes, and the shedding stops.

My attention turns downward to the cheerful green clumps waving up from the snow to me, just begging for closer inspection. What I’m looking at are club mosses – the greens that are sometimes called ground pine and princess pine – in the family of Lycopodium. From the Greek, lycos (meaning wolf), and podos (foot), a reference to the resemblance of the branch tips to a wolf’s paw. Lycopodii are the stuff of many holiday wreaths, artfully crafted to life by my mother’s hands. I still enjoy this tradition at my own kitchen table, and appreciate the foresight of Mom’s careful harvesting of these plants to ensure large populations for future harvests.

Ground cedar (L. complanatum) is reminiscent of very mellow, laid-back palm trees. Downright tropical, actually. Pina coladas, anyone? Tree club mosses (L. obscuratum) are not obscure at all; they stand tall like soldiers on the forest floor, wearing an occasional ‘fruiting strobile’ yellow hat.

L. clavatum, or running club moss, lies fairly close to the ground, to which it is attached with very strong and roots. My favorite is the shining club moss. Not just because it is fun to say, Lycopodium lucidulum is as absolutely bright green as green can get. Shining and verdant, it reminds me of the strands of Elodea that aquarium fish love to hide in and among.

L. lucidulum consists of one stem, 5-6 inches high. It would never wear a fruiting strobile, but instead wears spores on its stem.

All of these club mosses are protected in New York State. You are allowed to harvest them on your own land without fear of prosecution. If you do, please be responsible and take less than a quarter of the population from any one site.

A cup of hot tea awaits. I return home with a small bag of assorted Lycopodiii that will soon become a merry circle to grace my door, and I find that both my mood and the day have brightened considerably.