The charms of up-Island are numerous, but I had my own reasons to take a Sunday drive up Middle Road last weekend.
Topping my list of favorite up-Island things are Andy and Susie’s honey, fresh milk from Mermaid Farm, and a walk through the woodland wilds of Chilmark.
It is in these woods that one can find a plant not too often seen down-Island.
Ground pine is a small, scaly evergreen plant that resembles a miniature pine tree, and usually will not grow higher than shin level. It is found on the forest floor, poking up through the leaf litter in the soils of the moraine.
Despite looking like a naturally-occurring bonsai tree, the ground pine is not what it appears to be. It is not a tree (it is both flowerless and seedless); rather, it belongs to a more exclusive club: a group of plants known as clubmoss. This group isn’t what it sounds like, either: club moss are not members of the moss family. Ground pine is in the genus lycopodium, and reproduces via spores, so it is more closely related to ferns than to the oaks that tower above this little lycophyte.
The most common club moss species in up-Island woodlands is Lycopodium obscurum, whose name says it all. Lyco comes from the Greek word “lycos,” meaning wolf, and “podos,” meaning foot, describing the resemblance of its branches to a wolf’s foot. Obscurum explains this plant’s habitat preferences — dark, shady and obscure places.
Club mosses are the ancients of the plant world. Known to be present on the earth more than 200 million years ago, they existed before insects and even earlier thandinosaurs. Their longevity extends to the plant’s current life cycle: it takes 20 years to grow from a spore to an adult plant capable of releasing spores. Even with all this time on their side, these petite plants never grow taller than about one foot high.
They do, however, pack a surprising punch: the spores of the ground pine (and other members of the genus lycopodium) are not only sulphur-colored; they are sulphur-like. The spores are highly flammable, and were used as a flash powder in early photography and for magic tricks and theater effects that required lightning-like blazes and quick bursts offire. These particles also resist water, so were used pharmaceutically as dusting powder for pills so the medicine s would not sticktogether. And since the spores are a uniform size, scientists used them as a standardized microscopicmeasurement. This plant is one-stop shopping for all kinds of scientific applications.
Though the spores are so versatile, the plant itself is a little more limited in its uses. It is known to be poisonous to people and livestock, causing paralysis of motor nerves, though some limited medicinal uses have been identified.
Focus down to the ground for a bit of green in these gray days of March. Join the club of those of us who enjoy these miniature mimics and find plant paradise (as well as sweet and creamy delights) in a trip up-Island.
Suzan Bellincampi is director of the Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary in Edgartown.