Prehistoric plants grow under our winter snow

Princess Pine
Princess Pine

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 Chel Anderson is a botanist and plant ecologist. She lives here in Cook County and joins us periodically to talk about phenology or what’s going on in the woods right now. Welcome, Chel.

 
Anderson: Hi, Jay.
 
Well, now we associated cold weather with a brown landscape, unless there is snow on it, of course. But, I understand there is still greenery out there even though things look brown. Where is it?
 
Anderson: Right. Well, this is one of the best times of year to find things, because they stand out so much because they’re still green when, as you say, everything else is grey or brown other than coniferous trees until the snow falls. These plants that are still green out there, some of them will stay green right under the snow and some will actually feed little animals that live under the snow. But, I thought one thing for people that is worth paying attention to, until the snow comes and covers everything up, is a group of plants called the club mosses. They’re related to ferns, with which people might be a little bit more familiar, and there are ferns, too, that stay green under the snow and are still green. Those ferns that are still green now, once spring comes, those fronds of the ferns that are green under the snow and are still there in the spring, will eventually dry up and go away as the new fronds come out. The club mosses, on the other hand, they actually stay green right on through. They don’t ever die back in the annual sense of the word. They’re an interesting group of plants in that, like the ferns that they’re related to, they’re part of the most ancient lineage of plants that we can observe today.
 
Now, these are the guys that kind of look like fuzzy caterpillars, only they’re green?
 
Anderson: Yes, and some of their common names like Ground Cedar or Ground Pine or Running Pine or Princess Pine or Christmas Tree Pine, those are common names for the different species of club mosses that are one clue to what some of them look like. They look like miniature trees with spreading branches of different shapes and sizes, but they’re all within the three- to six-inch high range, and then some of them are more spikes with just a few small branches. Others have much more spreading, rounded branches.
 
These club mosses, as you said, are really ancient. I mean, are we talking, like, prehistoric?
 
Anderson: Oh, yes. We’re talking about hundreds of millions of years ago. So, the carboniferous period.
 
Wow, that is a long time ago.
 
Anderson: Yeah, which is part of when the dinosaurs were on the land. At that point in time, the club mosses and the ferns were the canopy species at that time.
 
They were big.
 
Anderson: So, they were enormous. Bigger than, in some cases, the trees we have here today. This is a very ancient lineage of plants, and, of course, the world has changed around them, but they’ve managed to hang on—keep a grip, so to speak—on earth, despite all the big changes. And here, in our landscape, they present themselves as usually small to very large colonies of green. They may look like small trees, you know, miniature trees, as I described before. Some look like mosses on steroids. They don’t have branches, but they look big and robust like huge, pumped-up moss and they grow in colonies, which most of our mosses do as well. So, they’re easy to see right now or identify. Sometime they’re hard to find when they’re amongst all the other ground-layer plants in the summertime that are green, but now is a good time to look for them and see if you can pick them out. Some of them actually create their reproductive parts at the top of their stems. That’s where the “club” part of the term “club moss” comes from, because it’s often shaped like a baseball bat is shaped, and that’s where the spores ripen and dry. And once they dry, they can be wind-dispersed, so if you walk along and happen to kick those on a nice, dry day, you’ll send up a swirl of this very fine yellow dust which is the spores of the club moss. And if you notice that or you find some and you see that they have these clubs, you can flick it with your finger even and you’ll create a little dust cloud of these spores, and those are going to be dispersed by the wind and settle somewhere, and if things go well, they can start another plant and eventually a colony. But, these plants can also spread vegetatively, because all those stems that you see above the ground are connected by rhizome. So, the rhizome travels along just under the leaflet or just under the soil, and the individual, upright stems come from the rhizome. So, you could have a colony that covers a huge area and it’s possible that it’s all one plant, or just a few plants versus many, many individuals represented by all these stems. Those individual vertical stems can all be part of very few or even just one plant.
 
If I’m out in the woods and I see Princess Pine and I uncover it to look at it, am I doing it any damage, or should I cover it back up?
 
Anderson: Yeah, cover the rhizomes back up. They grow where they do because that’s where they’re nicely settled and are protected from some of the elements. Yeah, cover them back up, and it’s probably worth reminding people that the Princess Pine that you’re familiar with is a very attractive species that people utilize for making wreaths and other kinds of decorative things during the holidays, and they’re valuable because they have this long-lasting green capacity to hold their color for a long time. So, if you are collecting any kind of decorative material like that, be sure to collect the stems individually. Don’t get ahold of a few stems and pull up that rhizome and pull it out and take it all as a big bunch.
 
So, that would be the end of that.
 
Anderson: If you’re going to harvest them on public land, then you need to get a permit for that and do it that way. I’ll just mention one more thing that’s very interesting about these species, and that is that these tiny, little spores that come off the club moss, in past times, this was a very important product. The spores were a product and they were used for everything from cosmetics, because it’s a very fine talc, kind of as fine as talcum powder, and as an explosive agent for things like fireworks, photographers’ flashes. So, you picture the old photographers working with their big, heavy cameras and plates and the flashes that they used often made to flash like they did using these club moss spores. So, it was a substitute for gunpowder. Something one would never really realize looking at it in the woods or think, “Oh, wow, big potential here for explosives.”
 
I wonder who connected those dots.
 
Anderson: Yeah, I don’t know if that was the Chinese, perhaps—
 
They invented gunpowder.
 
Anderson: Yeah, I think magicians also used this in the past to make some of their flame-related magic tricks.
 
Chel Anderson is a botanist and plant ecologist, and thank you for helping us understand about club moss. It’s an explosive topic.
 
Anderson: You’re very welcome. 

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