The Princess Pine of the Forest
No matter the time of year I always discover something fascinating when on a woods walk. Every month of each season the forest gives up its secrets for us to encounter and admire. On Nov. 3 (following an early morning visit to the polls) I drove to southern New Hampshire for a walk of the property my grandparents had purchased almost 90 years ago. I have spent much of the past 50-plus years in those woods and, for the past 15 years, have helped to manage the forestland for my family.
Soon after entering the woods I found a large patch of princess pine. This diminutive ground dwelling plant is only about 4 to 6 inches tall and can grow in large patches that resemble a beautiful miniature evergreen glade. I see this plant most often when I am in our woods and have also found it in state forests here in The Last Green Valley.
A few inches of wet snow had fallen in the early morning hours and the plants stood out against the fresh white covered forest floor. I stooped down to get a closer look, take a few pictures, and decided to research more about this interesting forest dweller.
Some folks call the plant ground pine or ground cedar, but despite its common name, it is not related to pines. Princess pines are one of several clubmosses found in New England. The “pine” or “cedar” name is because they hold their green color year-round and the shape of their fanlike spreading branches resembles cedars. The name “club” is due to a club-shaped growth at the top of the plant. I spotted several on the princess pines that morning, and it was what drew my attention.
Clubmosses are one of the most ancient group of vascular plants, originating about 410 million years ago (before the dinosaurs) with about 1,200 species in existence today. Their plant lineage is lycopods which was common during the carboniferous geologic period when the earth was covered with dense swampy forests. Today the remains of these original plants make up part of the planet’s fossil fuel deposits.
Clubmosses, such as the princess pine, are low growing with small, scale-like leaves. Most species prefer shady, moist woodlands. Again, their name is deceiving. Clubmosses are not true mosses, which are non-vascular, and they are larger and taller than mosses.
Clubmosses evolved before flowering plants and reproduce by means of spores. Reproduction occurs through the dispersal of spores, found in sporangia, located singly or in groups, in a yellow cone-like tip known as a strobilus.
It can take up to 20 years for a clubmoss to mature and produce spores. Clubmosses have adapted to this impediment by growing new above-ground plants through underground stems, allowing for faster growth of an entire cluster.
During the late 19th century and into the 20th century the princess pine and other clubmosses were gathered during Christmastime for making wreaths. The dried spores of clubmosses were also used for a variety of things. The spores are volatile and were used in making flash powders for fireworks, flash trays for early cameras, as a lubricant of machine parts and even in fingerprint powders.
Unfortunately, due to over harvesting and the long time it takes for each plant to produce the spore filled club, clubmosses, such as princess pine, began to disappear from our forests and woodlands. In some states, laws have been enacted to prohibit picking these beautiful and fascinating plants. The patch of princess pine I found that day was in a wet, shady and undisturbed area of the forest. My guess is it has been in that location for several decades.
During my rambles here in The Last Green Valley I’ll be on the lookout for more patches of this unique and ancient woodland dweller. If you encounter this princess of the forest remember not to pick it, and tread lightly so those who follow can also enjoy this little wonder.
We live in a beautiful place called The Last Green Valley – our very own, homegrown National Park. I hope you’ll join me as we care for it, enjoy it, and pass it on.
Sources used for this column include the State University of New York (SUNY) Courtland, “A Field Guide to Your Own Back Yard,” by John Hanson Mitchell and “The Trees in My Forest,” by Bernd Heinrich.
Bill Reid is the Chief Ranger of The Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor and has lived in the region for more than 35 years. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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