Clubmosses – Lycopodium SPP.: Edible & Medicinal Uses of the Not Really a Moss of Wild Plants

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In Haliburton Flora, there are 9 clubmosses (lycopodium spp.) listed. Although, since that survey was taken most of them have been reclassified. Genus flipping aside, by narrowest circumscription just 2 of these are lycopods hereabouts, and 4 Ontario-wide. Clubmoss/lycopodium species are vascular plants often referred to as fern allies, closely related to ferns and plants like horsetail. Sometimes they are called ferns, but no one familiar with them will be calling them actual mosses.

Clubmosses love cottage country Ontario’s mixed forests and acidic soil. The most popular is “staghorn”, which has many folk names around the world, including “common club” and “running clubmoss”. It’s lycopodium clavatum. Staghorn clubmoss is common in our dry and wet woods, grassy banks, and mossy fields. The second is arctic stag’s-horn (l. lagopus).

One of the staghorn clubmosses
One of the staghorn clubmosses, mixed with lichen

The reclassified ones that have been recently reported around Haliburton include: Interrupted clubmoss (spinulum annotinum), fan clubmoss (diphasiastrum digitatum), prickly tree-clubmoss (dendrolycopodium dendroideum), shining firmoss, pictured below (huperzia lucidula), hickey’s tree-clubmoss (dendrolycopodium hickeyi), flat-branched tree-clubmoss (dendrolycopodium obscurum), inundated bog clubmoss (lycopodiella inundata), northern ground-cedar (diphasiastrum complanatum), and blue clubmoss (diphasiastrum tristachyum). They are all still in the family lycopodiaceae. Some like the typical rich moist hummus in shade, others will grow in dry soil. Whether you’re in coniferous, deciduous, or mixed woods – look for the hummus and you’ll find some of these. It’s easiest to spot evergreen clubmosses in the leafy hummus in early Spring, before everything else grows!

Shining firmoss (huperzia lucidula)
Shining firmoss (huperzia lucidula)

Again, despite its name, clubmoss is not a true moss. It’s closer to a fern, or a fern, depending on who you ask. But speaking of moss, Gathering Moss is the must-read for an intriguing overview on true mosses like sphagnum. It’s by Robin Wall Kimmerer, who wrote the popular evergreen Braiding Sweetgrass. (I highly recommend both! FYI If you buy them through these links I’ll get a few cents!) With a jeweler’s loupe you can get close up to observe all these amazing plants.

Edible Uses of Clubmosses

While technically a few clubmosses and firmosses may be edible, most contain poisonous lycopodine. The poison ones include staghorn, the common one here. The whole plant is toxic except for the spores.

Like mosses, they would likely be bitter, gritty and unappetizing anyway. But if any of you grizzly ones have tried one of the borderline edible clubmosses, I’d love to hear what you thought of it in the comments.

Medicinal Uses of Clubmosses

Clubmoss/ usually staghorn (l. clavatum) is primarily said to support these body systems:

  • Digestive
  • Integumentary
  • Urinary

Medicinal tags include Antispasmodic, Diuretic, and Styptic. See Medicinal tag key for more information.

Common usage includes the yellow, powdery spores of l. clavatum for bleeding wounds and skin problems like eczema. The powder may irritate mucous membranes, although some have used the hemostatic spores to stop nosebleeds. It’s usually used externally.

The spores are also popular with herbalists in tinctures for chronic urinary issues. They have alkaloids that increase urine flow. For internal use it may show up in blends by qualified herbalists for kidney stones, UTIs, rheumatism, or digestive problems like nausea.

An exciting potential use is for Alzheimer’s and related conditions, to help memory. Lion’s mane, a local fungi we’ll eventually cover, is another species in the running for treating memory loss. One clubmoss species being studied is Chinese AKA toothed clubmoss (lycopodium serrata), with the memory enhancing potential of huperzine A and huperzine B, which it contains in small amounts. Huperzine could be a common treatment for dementia some day.

Alternative Uses of Lycopods

Clubmoss powder, sometimes called vegetable sulfur, is rich in oil and highly flammable. For this “lycopodium powder” has been used for flash powder in photography, for stage flame effects and even for fireworks.

The same powder has seen use as baby powder, hair detangler, and to prevent pills or tablets from sticking together, and for latex products like gloves to the same effect.

Running clubmosses (diphasiastrum spp.) can be used for festive wintery decor like wreaths.

Fan clubmoss (diphasiastrum digitatum)
Fan clubmoss (diphasiastrum digitatum)

Growing Lycopodium SPP.

Like ghost pipe, clubmoss requires certain fungi in the soil to thrive. Perhaps in the future we’ll figure out a way to grow these plants.


The plant itself is poisonous, but the spores are not. However, the spores may irritate sensitive skin.

Folks have developed asthma when exposed to large amounts of these powdery spores in factories. I’ve worked with fine dust from sanding floors to the scary dust of insulation and you can probably say this about any fine powder or dust. Masks are your friend!

And the Usual Cautions:

1) Most medicinal herbs, if edible, are meant to be eaten in moderation, even sparingly. Some require extra preparation.

2) People can be allergic or sensitive to nearly any plant; try new herbs one at a time at your own risk.

3) For medicinal use, I must recommend receiving a diagnosis and working with a reputed health care provider. I generally do not post specific treatments and dosages because I think that is best between you and your health care provider, and ideally monitored.

4) Anyone pregnant, nursing, or taking prescription drugs should talk to a health care professional before adding new food items to their diet.

5) Many plants have look-a-likes, and sometimes they are poisonous.

#ads in References

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Edible and Medicinal Plants of Canada

How Indians Use Wild Plants for Food, Medicine & Crafts (Native American)

A Modern Herbal (Volume 2, I-Z and Indexes)

Planting the Future: Saving Our Medicinal Herbs

The Herb Book: The Most Complete Catalog of Herbs Ever Published (Dover Cookbooks)

The Herb Bible

The Green Pharmacy: The Ultimate Compendium Of Natural Remedies From The World’s Foremost Authority On Healing Herbs

Reader’s Digest Magic and Medicine of Plants

Illustrated Encyclopedia of Herbs

The Practice of Traditional Western Herbalism: Basic Doctrine, Energetics, and Classification

Encyclopedia of Herbal Medicine: 550 Herbs and Remedies for Common Ailments

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