Happy New Year! It is the start of a brand-new year according to our calendars; however, our forests are still sleeping soundly after out Christmas deep-freeze. Amidst all the brown leaves and rhododendron foliage, one type of plant is quite apparent this time of year. Lycopodium. There are several species and several common names for these interesting plants. Turkey Toes, Wolf Foot and Club Moss are just three, but the most common name found in guide books is Running Ground Cedar.
Hikers can see it creeping along the ground in the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest. It loves acidic coves. Years ago, when it was much more common, it was commonly collected around the holidays. During the darkest days of the year, people harvested it to make boughs and wreaths for their homes. Today it is much less common, mostly due to over harvesting.
The spores of the Lycopodium are one of the most interesting and beautiful parts of the plant. Since the spores have a high-fat content and a large surface area, humans have used them as an explosive agent! They ignite with a bright flash of light. Once this was discovered, the spores were used in all sorts of ways. Early photographers created a brilliant flash by lighting the spores, which were in the form of a condensed yellow powder. They were used in fireworks and theater performances. Magicians used them to distract their audience. Lycopodium spores were even used as the power source in the first ever, combustion engine, patented in 1807 in France!
These wonderful spores are also quite water-repellant. They are used to this day as a desiccant. Can you imagine collecting the spores to use on your babies bottoms to keep them dry? Finding them in your pill bottles keeping the pills from sticking together? They are even used to ensure that latex gloves can be easily slipped onto your hand in medical facilities. In herbal and non-traditional medicine, the spores are used to treat rashes caused by too much moisture.
It is so much fun to walk along the trail and see this very beautiful plant. Knowing the secrets of the spores makes it even more wondrous.