Thursday, July 21, 2011

Moss Club

I like little things. Stuff I need to get down on my hands and knees to see.

This is me on holiday having fun, looking at little stuff.

Some special small stuff I found on my recent trip up North are plants that I've only seen before when I've been on fells and mountain tops.

Let me introduce you to, if you are not already acquainted with, special small stuff called clubmosses, or if you want to impress, Lycopods or Lycophytes.

These are little plants which look like mosses but aren't. Calling them mosses isn't very helpful. They are often lumped in with ferns, but actually they are more fern allies than relatives. To preserve my sanity I won't even try to go into their taxonomy or classification. Top people are still debating the issue. But that aside, they are actually jolly interesting. OK, not colourful but they have history, long, long history. And that gives then kudos over the gaudier angiosperms in my book (apologies to those mountain pansies, no offence was meant).

Clubmosses are believed to be similar to some of the earliest plants which colonised the land, over 400 million years ago. They are the diminutive relics of huge plants which dominated the land during the Carboniferous. The giant (100 foot tall) Lepidodendron 'tree' was a clubmoss and is found fossilised in coal deposits.

Clubmosses have simple leaves, microphylls, which only have a single vein, and they produce spores. I reacquainted myself with 4 species of clubmoss, recently in Teesdale.

Lesser clubmoss Selaginella selaginoides
Grows on lime and likes it damp. I found this clubmoss in Teesdale on sugar limestone; sites like Cronkley and Widdybank Fells. The picture below was taken at Widdybank (you can see Cow Green reservoir in the background). If you can see in my photo, the leaves have teensy teeth.

Fir clubmoss Huperzia selago
This is a distinctive clubmoss; very stiff and robust. Blamey et al, (2003) call it stout. Its leaves are untoothed. It prefers dry areas on mountains and heaths. 

Alpine clubmoss Diphasiastrum alpinum
This clubmoss is bluey-green in colour. It forms dapper little rosettes. It's quite distinctive with adpressed (which means 'lying close against') leaves. One can surmise from its name, that it lives in upland areas.

Below is a picture of the strobili or cones of apline clubmoss. These cones look like clubs, which is where clubmosses get their name. 

Stagshorn clubmoss
Lycopodium clavatum
This one is a creeper. It can spread along the ground for up to a metre or so. Again I think quite distinctive. There are strobili in the picture below, not yet ripe.
The leaves have a long white hairy bit on the end. 
Stagshorn clubmoss is not only a jazzy little plant, it has another claim to fame as the ingredient in the flammable Lycopodium powder. This was used for flash photography, fireworks and powders for fingerprints. It is now sold for use by magicians to create a quick-burning flashy flame (the powder is sometimes called Dragon's Breath). It's also apparently used as the dusting on condoms and to stabilize ice cream. Hmm.
Great little plants.

And this, picture below, is where I found the last 3 species of clubmoss (that is, all except lesser clubmoss). Not exactly Kew Gardens. An abandoned quarry between Weardale and Teesdale. A brilliant site to go plant hunting.
BTW I contacted the very nice Vice-County Recorder for Teesdale about the club-mosses at the quarry and he said that the stagshorn clubmoss was a new record for the site. Happiness.

Further Information
A simple diagram showing a clubmoss lifecycle is here.
Someone using Lycopodium Powder or Dragon's Breath can be seen here on You Tube (it's OK it's an educational video!)
More info on Lycopodium power from the Natural History Museum website here.

This was one time when Blamey, Fitter and Fitter trumped my beloved Rose (see below). Blamey et al., include a basic (very basic) guide to grasses, rushes, sedges, ferns, horsetails and clubmosses in their Wildflower Guide. It is invaluable if you don't want to carry much in the field. (So drat that it is still out of print and when I checked today was £100 second-hand on Amazon!!)

Blamey M, Fitter R and Fitter A (2003) Wildflowers of Britain & Ireland. A&C Black.

Rose F (2006) The Wild Flower Key. Warne

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