Monday, January 3, 2011

Running Clubmoss

Marie LeClair recently sent me a plant sample to identify. Marie uses various wild plants to good effect by drying and pressing them and gluing them to her homemade greeting cards. This seems pretty innovative to me and makes me wonder, “Why didn’t I think of that?”

Anyway, Marie’s sample is a sprig of running clubmoss, sometimes known as ground pine. The scientific name, for those interested, is Lycopodium clavatum.

This stuff grows in long strings on the forest floor where sunlight only dances in dribs and drabs. It does not occur out in the open. Running clubmoss makes a nice decorative plant and clever folks such as Marie put it to all kinds of interesting and attractive uses. But in the not-too-distant past, this primitive plant served us in several other ways.

First, the spore-producing cones, those little tapered yellow things that appear at the end of long, scaly stems, become laden with a yellow powder in summer. This powder, the accumulated millions of spores, is sterile and was used medicinally as an absorbent on various wounds and even surgical incisions. It could serve that same purpose today, if push came to shove.

But the powder’s other use fascinates me, mainly since I am still a boy at heart. The stuff is wicked flammable and I like to hold a match next to one of the powder-laden cones and flick it with my finger. “POOOF,” it goes, in a wonderful, brilliant flash. Sure, it’s a dangerous practice, but such as this brings out the kid in us all. But do as I say and not as I do. Please refrain from putting clubmoss spores to the test.

Because of its explosive properties, the fine, yellow “dust” from running clubmoss was used as flash powder in the early days of photography. So the next time you see a movie that portrays someone like, for instance, Matthew Brady taking a photo, remember that the stuff that makes the big flash grows all over the woods here in Maine.

So thank you, Marie, for sending me your plant sample and bringing this delightful plant to mind.

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