Club mosses consist of four genera, worldwide. Three of these occur within North America - Lycopodium, Selaginella and Isoetes. They used to be grouped taxonomically with ferns and horsetails as vascular plants that reproduce by spores rather than seeds. Now it's recognized that they represent three completely separate lines of evolution, and were genetically distinct 350 million years ago.

There has always been a magical world inside mosses for me. When I was relatively small, my grandfather, a bonsai fanatic and grower, befriended another bonsai grower in upstate New York. Family legend has it that they met when my grandfather wrote a letter to the local bonsai newsletter contradicting the purists who recommended that only certain plants were appropriate for bonsai. My grandfather wrote that he could make a bonsai out of pigweed, if he wanted to, and in fact had done.

I don't know who got in touch with whom initially, but Bernie apparently agreed about the pigweed, and a fast friendship was made over it.

All club mosses have small leaves with single veins that are more or less spirally arranged or in opposite pairs. The spores are either in cones, or in the base of the leaves - the leaf axil.

My parents also became fast friends with Bernie and his family - and any time my mother went to visit, I wanted to go along. Often I was the only kid there - my sister was far more engrossed in her book.

My game was to wander among Bernie's bonsais. His were much larger and more complicated than my grandparents. The pots were often two or three feet across, and the trees as tall. There were rocks, pools, and elaborate mosses - every bonsai was an entire forest. In my over-fertile imagination, I shrank down, and lived with gnomes and fairies within this magical miniature world. I could keep myself entertained within the bonsais for hours on end.

Lycopodium obscurum or ground pine, is my most familiar club moss. It grows abundantly in the northeast, and is all over Northern Ontario. It's found in moist, acidic woodlands. The branching is tree-like, with the main divisions having both large and small branches.

I spent a good portion of my childhood in the mixed pine forest of North Ontario. A significant amount of it was spent crawling around in the woods hunting down my cousins in games of hand grenade or kick the can, so I often had a rodent's eye view of the undergrowth. I remember studying the ground pine, miniature pine trees, at the scale of a Thumbelina sized girl - three inches tall.

Spores from one of the Lycopodia were apparently used to produce a flame in Victorian theater. A cloud of the spores produced a bright, rapid flame, but with little heat. This flash, among other things, was used to imitate lightning.

The Lycopodia are also used medicinally. They vary in use, medicinal qualities including diuretic, purgative, aphrodisiac, emetic and cathartic.

I probably don't lie on the ground studying mosses often enough these days, but I do own a book, Mosses, Lichens and Ferns of Northeast North America. I'm as likely to carry this book along into the woods as any, which probably makes me a nerd. One sign of the true plant geek is the patience to memorize names like Lycopodium obscurum, polystichum munitum, Blechnum spicant, Tayloria lingulata. Digging far enough down into plant taxonomy, you start to recogize the Greek and Latin words that are hidden within the plant names.

The name of the Lycopodium comes from Greek lukos, for wolf, and podos, foot. The branch tip apparently resembles a wolf's foot to the somewhat fanciful imagination of a taxonomist. Obscura if from Latin, dark, shady or obscured.

Shady wolf's foot. Who knew those miniature worlds I spent so much time exploring, contained in addition so much poetry?

Vitt, David, Janet E. Marsh and Robin B. Bovey. Mosses, Lichens and Ferns. Lone Pine Publishing, Redmond, Washington, 1988.
Millspaugh, Charles F. American Medicinal Plants. Dover Publications, Inc. Toronto, Ontario, 1974.