Diphasiastrum digitatum or Lycopodium digitatum
Clubmosses (Lycopdodiaceae) are ancient evergreen perennials that can be spotted easily in the winter woods when all the other forest floor plants are “sleeping”. They have reproductive structures that are shaped like clubs, hence the name. When I was a college student in the way-back-when, the clubmosses were all called “Lycopodiums” because they shared a common taxonomy. Today the group has undergone significant taxonomic revision resulting in several new genera, but the term “Lycopodiums” persists as a way to refer to this unique group of plants.
The most common clubmoss in my part of Virginia is called ground cedar or running cedar. Other common names for it are fan clubmoss and bears paw. This is an exceptionally beautiful evergreen plant that forms large colonies and offers a welcome reprieve to the winter-weary eye. As the various common names suggest, the greenery looks somewhat like cedar boughs. The leaves are flattened along one plane, waxy to shiny, and dark green. The plants are 4 to 8 inches in height and spread by runners above the ground. Fallen pine needles or leaves often obscure the runners.
As I noted in a previous post about another species of clubmoss, shining clubmoss, reproduction in this group of plants involves a complicated “alternation of generations” between sporophytes and gametophytes. Of the two generations, the most visible is the sporophyte generation. The above-ground “plant” that you see is the sporophyte and it produces several tall club-shaped structures called strobili. The strobili resemble tall candles on a stick. Ripened spores are released from the strobili when the wind blows or when rain or an animal physically disturbs them. This usually happens in late summer or fall. If you are lucky enough to see this, you’ll be amazed at how many spores can be produced by a stand of groundcedar!
Long ago, Native Americans discovered that clubmoss spores produce bright light when burned. That’s because the spores contain a lot of fat. Believe it or not, “Lycopodium powder” was later used by photographers to produce a flash a light before taking a picture! It was even used in fireworks! Lycopodium powder is still collected today for various commercial uses.
A wonderful natural history article about clubmoss was written by Marion Lobstein for the Prince William Wildflower Society. You should check it out to learn more about the various ways that clubmosses have been used by humans for generations. It’s worth a read!