Clubmosses are simple plants, related to ferns; their common name is an indication of their resemblance to true mosses, the 'club' referring to the shape of the spore-bearing cones that most produce. Marsh clubmoss is the only British member of its particular genus. In appearance, it resembles another clubmoss, Lycopodium clavatum or stag's-horn clubmoss, not uncommon in the uplands.
Like ferns, clubmosses have two distinct forms; the 'gametophyte', which stays underground and grows in partnership with a fungus, and the form in which most people are likely to see, the 'sporophyte'. This consists of long trailing and rooting stems, which are covered with a coat of tiny leaf-like scales called microphylls with tiny, pale brown spore cases at the tips.
The ancestry of clubmosses can be traced back to at least the Carboniferous period, 300 million years ago. Most of the land on the planet was then composed of one huge super-continent called Pangea. A large part formed an extensive area of wetland, populated by the giant clubmosses. These tree-like plants grew to over 35 metres tall extremely quickly, at a rate of several metres a year. It is believed that they only reproduced once, at their maximum height and size, before dying and sinking back into the wet ground. Conditions at the time favoured the formation of vast peatlands and, over the vast periods of geological time, these peats were compressed and formed the extensive coalfields now found over much of the Earth's surface.
The spores of clubmoss are highly inflammable, and have been put to a number of different uses over the centuries. Known as 'Lycopodium powder', they have been used as a dusting powder for infants' sores, in treatment for irritation and spasm of the bladder, and used in pyrotechny in the making of fireworks, and for artificial lightning on the stage. Another use has been dyeing woollen cloth, and as the lubricant on condoms.
In the UK, this species is mainly found the New Forest, Dorset and Surrey, and in the Republic of Ireland. It is also found in Wales and Scotland. There are a scattering of other sites in Cornwall, Devon, West Sussex and East Sussex. Attempts have been made to re-introduce it to Norfolk in 1999. Its global range includes Europe, where is known to be in decline, North America and Asia.
Marsh clubmoss grows on wet heaths, peaty soil, and other places that are wet for much of the winter, preferably with some disturbance from grazing, peat cutting or where vehicles or cattle have broken up the surface.
Marsh clubmoss was once much more widely spread and was once described as 'common'. Since 1855, loss of habitat by drainage has caused a major decline in its populations. Today, it is principally threatened by neglect and scrub encroachment arising as a result of the decline of sustainable peat-cutting, under-grazing and, possibly, pollution.
Marsh clubmoss is listed in the UK Biodiversity Action Plan (UK BAP), and included in English Nature's Species Recovery Programme. In order to return this species to its former range, a number of re-introduction projects have taken place. In one case, the turves containing the clubmoss specimens were sent by post in a biscuit tin. All of these re-introduced plants have shown some signs of initial success, but over the long-term, they do not seem to be surviving. The reasons for this are not clear at present but the sites are being monitored in order to discover the source of the problem. Conversely, where plants have been introduced to new sites where there is proper management, they seem to have survived much better. However, in the case of the Norfolk site, it is well managed but still the plant does not seem to be responding.
A category used in taxonomy, which is below 'family' and above 'species'. A genus tends to contain species that have characteristics in common. The genus forms the first part of a 'binomial' Latin species name; the second part is the specific name.
Microscopic particles involved in both dispersal and reproduction. They comprise a single or group of unspecialised cells and do not contain an embryo, as do seeds.
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