At this time of year in the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest, you might notice some very special plants along the trail. They are called “Fern Allies” but they don’t resemble ferns in the least. I will be talking about one kind of ally of a fern in this article called Club-Mosses ( Lycopodium). The fern allies are actually older than ferns, and only distantly related. There are only about 1200 species of these plants in the entire world. They are so unusual and so unrelated that no one would pay any attention to them if they were not somehow tied to a more familiar group . . . like ferns.
Club-mosses were major players in the coal forests of the Carboniferous age of 300-350 million years ago. To imagine what the world looked like that long ago, before the dinosaurs played their part in the history of our world, is difficult. Bring a hand lens or magnifying glass with you and get ready to closely examine these interesting plants.
The most common club-moss you will find along the trail and the hillsides is called Shining Club-moss. Its Latin name is Huperzia lucidula. They remind me of brilliantly green bottle brushes, about the diameter of a pencil. You often find them growing in a group and forming a ground cover. They prefer hemlock woods, so it is hard to say what will happen now that the hemlock wooly adelgid has decimated the hemlocks that used to thrive in the memorial forest. They also grow in varied cove forests so I’m hopeful we will continue to see them along the trail.
Then there is a club moss that looks like a little Spruce Christmas tree about 4”-9” tall. This is also a frequent species along the trail. Its common name is the Flat-Branch Ground-Pine, which is a very nice description of the plant itself. The fancy name is Lycopodium obscurum.
The third Club-moss family member you will find on the drier, more exposed sites. The lower right part of the trail that was burned in the 2016 forest fires would be an excellent place to look. Its name is Diphasiastrum tritachyum or simply Ground Cedar. It closely resembles Southern Running-Cedar, which can also be found in western North Carolina. Taxonomists argue about the classifications of these plants and tend to change them frequently. Ground Cedar was frequently collected to use as Christmas greens and this was not a good thing for these ancient plants. They are very slow growing.
The Great Smoky Mountains Association published a lovely little guide book called FERNS of the Smokies. It was written by Murray Evans. It includes pictures of the Fern Allies as well as written descriptions and it is pocket sized. I always carry it with me in my day pack. That and the hand lens will help you identify exactly what club-moss you are looking at.