Princess Pine

The holiday season is upon us and its time to do some decorating! Swapping out our planters filled with “Mum’s” and cabbage and exchanging them for something more thoughtful than just Alberta Spruce. Maybe you’ll use some holiday greens like Red pine or Fraser fir? Maybe you’ll think outside the box and cut some Japanese cedar, Cryptomeria japonica, and find some white birch sticks for vertical lift? Whatever you decide to use, remember many of your holiday greens that make up your planters, wreaths and garland come from plants. The obvious ones are Douglas fir, Fraser fir and white pine trees that give us the more pedestrian answers. However, what about a plant that grows on the ground and gives us a different kind of look?

Princess pine, Lycopodium obscurum, is commonly known as a clubmoss or ground pine. A different kind of roping or garland, offering a unique texture, princess pine is native to the eastern United States and southeastern Canada. Japan, Taiwan, Russia and Korea are also home to other Lycopodium. Prince’s pine, another of its nicknames, grows in the understory of deciduous and coniferous forests. When I was younger there was a colony of this near where I grew up in Roseland, New Jersey. Every year I would pick a small amount and help my mother make a wreath for our front door. Of course we had the permission of the landowner who we also made a wreath for. We would use princess pine, small cones from a dawn redwood, Metasequoia glyptostroboides, Japanese cedar, Cryptomeria and large leaves from a southern magnolia, Magnolia grandiflora to make our wreath. Clearly this is where my love for plants began.

Rarely more than six inches tall, this uncommon plant reminds one of a conifer or a fern for that matter. Its main stem is actually a subterranean, creeping rhizome, which grows a few inches below the ground. Historically harvested from the wild for Christmas greens, it also has helped satisfy another retail market. The spores of this plant have been used for flash powder. In fact, excessive harvesting has threatened the plant and states like Indiana and New York have it protected by state law. Today, harvesting is only allowed by permit in certain areas, thus making it even more of a rarity than other traditional garland types.

Lycopodium’s Greek epithet, dissected, describes a diminutive wolf’s foot, because of the resemblance of clubmoss leaves to a wolf’s paw.  “Lycopods are flowerless, vascular, terrestrial or epiphytic plants, with widely branched, erect, prostrate or creeping stems, with small, simple, needle-like or scale-like leaves that cover the stem and branches thickly (Wikipedia).”

These “Fern Allies” are a marvel to see in the midst of winter. A welcome perennial evergreen groundcover that, when not hidden by a fresh coat of snow, is a real horticultural treat to see. Worldwide there are some 10-15 genera and nearly 400 species of clubmoss. “Clubmosses or Lycophytes evolved some 410 million years ago as one of the earliest groups of vascular plants (Virginia Native Plant Society).” The unique candles held above its conifer-like stems have always captivated my attention.  Whenever I am lucky enough to stumble upon them, in their native habitat, I always take the time to appreciate them.

Ground pines do best in moist locations and are commonly found in woods, thickets and clearings. Important to note that because of their extremely slow growth and delicate life cycle, princess pine may be difficult to find this holiday season. Furthermore, it may be prudent to say, this interesting plant may be better left untouched and appreciated on your next nature hike rather than over your mantle? However, should you be fortunate enough to find a coil or two, that was responsibly harvested this holiday season, misting or plunging clubmoss in water helps reinvigorate the plant and carry it through the holiday season.