They may look like miniature pine trees or small hemlocks with their tiny needle-like leaves but they are not. This tree, commonly called princess pine, that we see on walks through the woodlands in New Hampshire are “fern allies” that produce powdery spores that disperse in the wind. It’s too early in the season to see the “clubs,” the appendage at the tip of the plant that produces spores but click HERE to see them on our Virginia property.
We don’t see too many of these living fossils on walks in New England, but we had them fully carpeting our sandy woodland on our Virginia acreage. Perhaps it is a different variety that thrives in the warmer zone 7b but they certainly look the same.
The plant is in the clubmoss family (Lycopodiaceae), a prehistoric group of plants that grew before there were dinosaurs or pine trees. The princess pines grow about 6 “- 10” tall on cool, moist forest floors and spread by spores and by underground stems… that can surface and cross obstacles that may be blocking the runners beneath the surface.
If you heat your home with coal, you may be burning this fossil. Ancient tree clubmosses could grow about 100′ tall. Like the giant tree ferns, they grew in warm, swampy areas in the Carboniferous era 360 million years ago and were transformed into coal beds that are mined today.
Through the years, people have used them for Christmas decorations on church altars, wreaths, arrangements, the spores used in powders for the skin, to coat pills, as flash powder for photography or fireworks… but moderation is advised in pulling up these clubmosses for it will be easy to destroy an entire group. In at least two states, they are endangered and protected and threatened in other states. So when you come across these tiny trees, stop and be amazed, and walk on….