Clubmoss: A Relic Evergreen Plant

March 2016

by: Linda Martinson 

Here at Richland Ridge, we had some significant wind, snow and ice events in late February with a total of 10 + inches of snow/freezing rain falling, and the students of Transylvania County missed nearly two weeks of school. One morning during this time, we woke to the branches of trees and shrubs covered with a glistening layer of ice in a softly glowing fog, and the foliage of the evergreens looked particularly lovely in their frozen cases.

Ice on Pine trees Credit: Linda Martinson

The botanical definition of evergreen is a plant with foliage that remains “ever green” throughout the year. Although there are many other evergreen trees, shrubs, and herbaceous plants, usually the term evergreen is used to describe pine trees or conifers, and most species of conifers do retain their green needles all year, e.g., at Richland Ridge — white pine, Virginia pine, and hemlock. 

Some conifers can survive the harsh winter temperatures of the boreal forests of the sub-Arctic, even below -30 degrees. There is an Ice Age relic of a boreal forest, and the second most endangered conifer system in the United States, not far from Richland Ridge: the southern Appalachian spruce-fir forest covering an area of only about 100 square miles, mostly along the highest elevations of the Blue Ridge Parkway. This montane coniferous forest consists mainly of the red spruce and the Fraser fir. 

Snowy scene Credit: Linda Martinson

Another even more ancient relic, a primitive evergreen land plant, can be found at Richland Ridge — the Appalachian clubmoss, commonly called ground-pine, running cedar, or turkey brush. Clubmoss and its relatives, ferns, are primitive land plants that do not flower or even produce seeds. Instead, they produce tiny spores. They were the first true plants, after algae, to appear on land around 400 million years ago, and they dominated the landscape in tall forests until they were gradually replaced by flowering trees by about the time of the dinosaurs, 150 to 65 million years ago. Now ferns and clubmoss are much smaller and less dominant, but still common. 

The common clubmoss, ground-pine, found in some areas at Richland Ridge is less than six inches tall with small green scalelike leaves on upright stems that extend horizontally across the ground. The spores of ground-pine used to be collected for pharmaceutical companies to coat aspirin and other pills and was also used as a component of flash powder for early photography. Clubmoss are used today for homeopathic remedies, to treat diarrhea for example, and are being investigated as a possible treatment for Alzheimer’s disease. In some locations, they have been over-harvested to make Christmas decorations.

You can see a good-sized patch of clubmoss or ground-pine along the southern end of the Lady Slipper trail running from the first section of Doghobble Road to the grassy area on the left before West Ridge Road. It certainly was a pretty sight against the snow. Check it out, and try to imagine these small primitive plants being several hundred feet tall and replacing the large pines and other trees growing nearby.

Reference: Mountain Nature by Jennifer Frick-Rupert

Ground-pine and snow and ice photos at Richland Ridge   Credit: Linda Martinson