Contrary to popular belief, these are not tiny pine trees. Their common names of princess pine, ground pine, and groundcedar lead you to believe they are. However, they are part of an ancient family of plants called a clubmoss.
Clubmosses are old, really old, over 400 million years old. They are the earliest group of vascular plants having specialized xylem & phloem for water and food transport. Clubmosses grew as high as 135 feet during the Carboniferous period, about 350–300 million years ago, with diameters of up to 6 feet. Much of our modern supply of coal is the fossilized wood of tree clubmosses.
They are lycophytes, a subgroup of the kingdom Plantae, and have no flowers or seeds, rather they reproduce from spores. They have small leaved, conifer-like stems known as strobili (strobilus, singular form) that have structures called sporangia (sporangium) that produce the spores. Their “leaves” are called microphylls.
The spores are high in fat (oil) and thus are both hydrophobic and flammable. When the spores ignite, they create a bright flash. You may have heard of Lycopodium power. This was used in old timey flashes and fireworks. The spores are also used for lubricants for machine parts, fingerprint powders, coatings for pills and stabilizers for ice cream. Another once common use was as a coating for latex gloves and condoms, unfortunately 15% of people were allergic.
Clubmosses prefer sandy or coniferous forests, second-growth or old-growth forests, but can also be found on anthropogenically disturbed land. You will find them in abundance in Zoar Valley, Franklin Gulf, and the old-growth section of Beaver Meadow Audubon Center. We have a few common species in Western NY. Two look very similar and are hard to tell apart.
The common types of clubmosses in our area are:
- Flat-branched tree clubmoss or Princess Pine (Dendrolycopodium obscurum)
- Prickly tree clubmoss (Dendrolycopodium dendroideum)
- Fan clubmoss or Groundcedar (Diphasiastrum digitatum)
- Shining clubmoss (Huperzia lucidula)