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What is Lycopodium?

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  • Written By: Alex Tree
  • Edited By: Melissa Wiley
  • Last Modified Date: 18 November 2016
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Lycopodium is a genus of terrestrial or epiphytic plants that belong to the family Lycopodiaceae, which is widely referred to as the clubmoss family. The common name clubmoss comes from the Greek words lykos, which means wolf, and podos, meaning foot, in reference to the branch tips of these plants resembling a wolf’s paw. Other common names used to refer to these plants are creeping cedars and ground pines. These plants range from 0.49 feet (0.15 m) to 1.97 feet (0.60 m) in height depending on the species. Another distinctive feature of these plants are their many branches that are covered with tiny leaves.

The branches of these plants can either be erect or prostrate. Along their horizontal and creeping stems grow upright shoots that are covered with leaves that are simple, scale-like, or needle-like. Appressed and membranous leaves cover the horizontal stems. The roots of Lycopodium plants originate from the underside of the main stems.

Lycopodium is widely distributed in temperate, sub-arctic, and tropical climates, though those found in the tropics tend to be confined to mountainous environments. There are more than 800 species, subspecies, and varieties of plants in this genus. Although these plants are generally abundant, there are some species that have been listed as threatened and endangered. The list of endangered species includes L. complanatum, or groundcedar; L. dendroideum, or tree groundpine; and L. clavatum, or running clubmoss.

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L. clavatum may be the most valuable Lycopodium plant commercially. It is used in traditional Chinese medicine to treat fever and inflammation, as well as to stop wounds from bleeding. The dried spores of this species are often made into a powder and sold in capsule form as a homeopathic medicine to treat early symptoms of Alzheimers and to enhance memory and mental alertness. Along with D. digitatum, this species is used to make Lycopodium powders, which have several applications in photography, cinema, and theater special effects. Another species, L. obscurum, or ground pine, is often used as a Christmas decoration as it can stay green throughout the winter.

Lycopodium plants exhibit sexual reproduction through their spores. As cultivation of these plants is difficult, they are mostly gathered in the wild for their various uses. These plants do not transplant very well, though cultivation can be attempted by placing them in very moist soils. Lycopodium plants require cool temperatures but can adapt to a wide range of light conditions.

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