Alpine clubmoss growing on Hudson Bay Mountain (“the prairie”). (Jim Pojar photo)

Alpine clubmoss growing on Hudson Bay Mountain (“the prairie”). (Jim Pojar photo)

The Nature Nut

Rosamund Pojar

When we think of “fairy rings,” we usually think of mushrooms all arranged in a ring. According to folklore, if you step inside a mushroom fairy ring, the fairies will force you to dance until you are exhausted (read ‘dead’).

Never fear, lots of people have survived stepping inside a ring, including yours truly.

Mushrooms are not the only living organisms that produce fairy rings. If you get chance to go up on the “Prairie” of Hudson Bay Mountain in the next short while before the snow flies, you may find fairy rings made by clubmosses.

Clubmosses are not mosses but are vascular plants that do not grow very tall and tend to creep across the ground. They reproduce by producing light, powdery spores in club-shaped structures (cones or strobili) sitting on the tips of upright stems.

It is estimated that clubmosses have been around for 410 million years. At the time of the dinosaurs, they were the size of extremely tall trees (some say 100 feet tall) and, together with spore-bearing horsetails and ferns, dominated the landscape.

Alpine clubmoss typically grows very low to the ground in areas where the soil is very thin and rocky, and the soils are very poor at or above the treeline. For some reason they often tend to grow in rings.

Recent studies investigating why have found that the concentration of important nutrients needed for growth are highest just at the place where the roots and plant growth are the thickest. It is suspected that the roots, possibly with the help of root inhabiting fungi, can breakdown the organic matter into the minerals required for growth.

However, as plant growth moves outward, the maximum root growth is on the outer side. The poor soils on the inner side of the plants no longer have enough nutrients to sustain growth, so the plants die. As a result, they form rings with the densest growth at the outer edge of the circle.

The light powdery spores of today’s clubmosses are very flammable and were once used as flash powder for photography.

Because the spores are dry and soft and silky to the touch, they were also used to line condoms and diapers. Spores are also used medicinally and can be bought as ‘Lycopod or clubmoss powder’.

The spores are also sold as ‘dragon powder’ and may be used by magicians. A large part of the oil and gas we use today as fuel is from decomposed and compressed clubmoss ‘trees’.