Green in Winter: Ground Cedar

Ground cedar seeking ground.
Ground cedar seeking ground.

A couple of weeks ago, before the brutal cold set in, the Ottawa valley had been experiencing a relatively open and mild December. We went for a walk in the regenerating forest on the farm. Sixty or more years ago this land had been kept in pasture. Poor pasture  – because the land is an old sand dune. Slowly, forest has been creeping in from the remnant wooded areas: white pine and black cherry seed into the sumac and brambles and, voilà, thirty years or so on, we have a young forest.

The greenest plant on the forest floor was ground cedar. It was perky and upright and bright fresh green. The min/max thermometer in the garden had recorded a -12° C at some point in the past week. The basal rosettes and persistent leaves of many other species had darkened, purple or olive, according to their nature, but there was the ground cedar – looking as lively as  in mid-summer.

Ground cedar (Diphasiastrum digitatum syn. Lycopodium digitatum) is not a cedar, of course, but a type of club moss. Other club mosses in our area have spiky, needle-like leaves.DSCN1672 Club mosses are fern allies, plants of very old lineages which. like the true ferns, reproduce by spores not by seeds. Propagating club moss by sexual means is not really feasible: they can spend years in the gametophyte stage and the gametophyte is mycotrophic, deriving nutrients from symbiosis with fungi. (Technical stuff – some day I’ll post about propagating ferns from spores.) However, club mosses are clonal species, colonizing large areas vegetatively. Oodling about in the internet after ground cedar, I read several accounts that say transplanting offsets of ground cedar is quite do-able. My one attempt failed miserably but it was not a serious attempt, done with prompt and close attention. I haven’t got a spot in the garden at this time which needs some ground cedar, but there is a shady area to the east of the house, sloping down to the seasonal creek, to which we will turn our attention some day. Note to self: ground cedar.


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Trish Murphy

Artist: botanical, still life, and natural history illustration. Garden designer: native plants and naturalistic gardens