North Coast Chapter Of The
California Native Plant Society

Lycopodium The Club-mosses

By: Gordon Leppig

clubmossThe club-mosses are not mosses at all but actually primitive vascular plants related to the spike-rushes (Selaginella) and the quillworts (Isoetes). These ancient fern-like, spore-bearing herbs were dominant back in the Paleozoic Era, especially during the Carboniferous. Today, though rarely dominant, there are about 450 species found worldwide.

The club-mosses tend to be low, trailing or vine-like, rhizomatous, evergreen herbs. In the temperate regions they tend to inhabit acidic soils in damp forests or peatlands. In the tropics they are often epiphytic. Some of the terrestrial types form fairy rings in open undisturbed areas.

In California we have only two species, Lycopodium clavatum, running-pine and Lycopodium inundatum, the bog club-moss (now considered Lycopodiella inundatum). Though both are rare in the golden state, they are widely distributed in the northern temperate regions. The bog club-moss, as its name implies, is found only in peatlands (also rare in California) and other wet, generally acidic habitats. In California it only occurs on the North Coast, Big Lagoon Bog for instance, and in the northern Sierra Nevada. The running pine prefers forest floor openings such as roads and cut-over areas, especially in redwoods. In California it is found only on the North Coast.

From amongst all the spore-bearing plants, our species has probably found the most eclectic uses from the club-mosses. The plants have been used as upholstery stuffing, and basket, bag, and fish net making. On the east coast they are used to make holiday wreaths and garlands. I think this practice is now on the wane because previously common species have become rare locally due to habitat destruction and over collecting. The spores of certain species are collected and sold as 'Lycopodium powder.' This spore powder is very flammable and was formerly used in the flash powder of olden day photography, in fireworks, and stage lighting. Lycopodium powder was also used in physics experiments (oh what fun!), and as a dusting powder for pills and surgical gloves, though the latter use was discontinued, at least in part because the spores of L. clavatum cause inflammation in surgical wounds.

Despite this the club-mosses do have a number of putative medicinal uses. L. clavatum is used homeopathically for flatulence and digestive troubles, though I am sorry to report I've not found it terrible effective. L. clavatum is also listed as a possible insulin substitute because it has experimental hypoglycemic activity.

California Native Plant Society - North Coast Chapter
P.O. Box 1067 Arcata, CA 95518-1067
Last updated April 1999