A Walk In The Winter Woods

Running Cedar

Stepping off our sandy lane onto a thick cushion of fallen leaves, we don’t have to walk far to find an oasis of green beneath the young oaks, maples, pines and poplars.  In the frigid temperatures and wet weather of January, tiny evergreen plants blanket this zone 7b woodland floor.  These are clubmosses, plants whose ancestors existed almost 400 million years ago before flowering plants populated the earth.  Along with massive tree ferns, the club mosses grew well over 100’ tall with trunk diameters of 5’.  These ancient forests of giants lived in swamps during the age of coal, the Carboniferous era and their decay led to the coal fields of today.

click each photo to enlarge

The first club moss that we encounter in our woods, with its flat branches and the cedar-like appearance, is Running Cedar (Lycopodium digitatum).  At this time of year, the tiny candles or clubs are full of spores and just brushing the plants will generate miniature yellow clouds.  The plants also expand by rhizomes along the ground, thus the name Running Cedar.  In this way, they can cover extensive areas of the forest floor if conditions are ideal. Our woods must provide what they need for the ground is covered with this variety.

Princess Pine

Nearby, we recognize our other clubmoss that looks remarkably like a tiny pine tree (Lycopodium obscurum) or what I call Princess Pine.  It grows about 6 – 8 inches off the ground in our woods but can grow larger. The Princess Pine reproduces by a rhizome as well so I suppose it could be called Running Pine.

The common name, clubmoss, describes the appendage at the tip of the plant, which produces spores for reproduction.  The spores have a high oil content and have been used to coat pills and is still used in powders to sooth the skin. Native Americans used the spores for various medicinal purposes and early Americans and Europeans used them for a wide range of healing.  Interesting, the plant is poisonous but not the spores.  The spores are highly flammable and they were used in early photography to provide the needed flash.

A request was once made for some of our Princess Pine to be used as a church decoration.  I gave my consent.  But in learning more about the plant and how difficult it is to transplant or cultivate, I now protect our miniature evergreen forest, a mere shadow of its ancient relatives.

Ann Hohenberger, The Garden Club of Gloucester

7 thoughts on “A Walk In The Winter Woods

  1. My mother used the Running Cedar for Christmas decorations when I was growing up. I hear now that it has protected status in Va., but only in Va. It must have graced too many mantels or wreaths.


    • Oh Les, I hope you are right about protected status. I know I am protective of it. If I caught someone pulling it up, I’m not sure what I’d do. I am reminded of your posts describing damage to your garden, a saga that both shocked me and made me laugh out loud. I’d like to find those posts and read them again and again.


  2. I remember Les’s unbelievable ordeal. Let’s hope no one violates your wonderful club moss. I have seen it used for Christmas decorations, too, and believe it is okay to harvest from your own property although the GCV discourages use of threatened species.


  3. Great tale! As a native Virginian, I remember this plant as Running Cedar. Years ago many people used it in their Christmas decorations. Fortunately today, people are too busy in their lives to go to the woods to gather it or too many of our forests are destroyed now by over development. I hope everyone will remember to preserve our native woodland plants. Ann, thank you for reminding everyone of how beautiful our woodlands and fight to save them!


  4. There is no harm in harvesting running cedar or Princess pine if it is done responsibly. In fact, if done properly, you will increase the population in the successive years.
    1) Don’t harvest more than you need.
    2) Harvest only running cedar or Princess pine with “open” mature cones that will allow dispersal of spores.
    3) Disturb the leaf litter in a new spot in the woods and shake the mature cones over the disturbed area. (You’re effectively “seeding” the new area).
    4) Don’t harvest an entire area. Pick one or two strands in a given area – if you select only open cones this will take care of itself.
    5) Don’t harvest more than you need. (yes it’s listed twice – for effect)

    I have used this method for about 20 years and have increased the size of the area covered by running cedar on our property from about 2/10 of an acre to about 3 acres.


    • I do harvest responsibly for projects here and there but I no longer allow the church to harvest for Christmas wreaths and altar decorations. Not a good thing! I will try your method to seed some new areas. That will be fun. Our strands are going gangbusters, too. It’s amazing how they’ve completely filled our forests in just a few years. Sadly, natural habitats are disappearing all too quickly with the sale of pine for paper mills and the creeping of suburbia. Educating people is the best strategy. Thanks for the information!


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