Dendrolycopodium obscurum is known by many names: princess pine, ground pine, and rare clubmoss (though it is neither rare nor a pine). The green tubular structure at the top of the plant is a spore-bearing cone called a strobilus. When fully mature in the fall, it will turn brown and release a golden dust of tiny spores. These spores are so rich in oil that they can be set alight, and were used as flash powder for early photography.
The Noble and Most Ancient Lycopodiophyta
If you have gone hiking in a New England forest you have almost certainly come across clubmosses, but did you know that they are the surviving members of an ancient plant lineage (lycopods) that first appeared on earth hundreds of millions of years before the dinosaurs? Modern species of lycopods are cousins of the massive scale trees that dominated the Carboniferous period, which are now preserved as part of the fossil fuel deposits (especially coal) that power our modern world.
There are around 20 species of clubmosses in New England, with common names like princess pine, ground pine, ground cedar, or firmoss. These plants are most noticeable in the winter, when they look like tiny evergreen glades on the bare and brown forest floor. And because clubmosses grow on shallow rhizomes that are easy to pull up, they have long been a popular component of holiday wreaths.
But before you run out to harvest clubmoss in a nearby forest or purchase a princess pine wreath, remember that these primordial plants reproduce and grow very slowly. In fact, a colony 100 square feet in size may have taken 100 years to grow. Just a few individuals collecting small amounts could quickly eliminate a local population that would take decades to return, if it ever did. For this reason, you should never harvest clubmosses in the wild, and when putting together your holiday decorations, look for plant materials like white pine or winterberry that can be harvested sustainably and responsibly!