Speaking of Nature: Remnants of the past: The princess pine

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    Growing only 5 to 6 inches tall, the sporophyte of the princess pine produces yellow haploid spores on a special "cone" at the top of the plant.  Imagine how many of these plants you would need to make fireworks. PHOTO BY BILL DANIELSON

For the Recorder
Published: 11/20/2022 4:00:24 PM

A walk in the winter woods can be a surprisingly interesting activity if you know what to look for. With the leaves off of most of the deciduous trees (except the American beech, which retains many of its dead leaves throughout the winter) there isn’t much to block your view of the “bones” of the forest.

Suddenly the bark of trees takes a more prominent role and you notice things that you might have overlooked in the summertime. There is also a much better chance that you will notice the few green plants that remain in a forest that is now dominated with grays and browns. It is one of these small green plants that I want to direct your attention to today.

Growing very low on the forest floor you may find a fascinating plant called “princess pine.” This is a common name that some have given to the plant that is formally known as Dendrolycopodiumobscurum. When you look at the plant from a low angle you may actually see the superficial resemblance that it might have to a pine tree, but there is nothing about this plant that makes it a close relative of the conifers. This is actually a member of a group of plants that had its heyday long before coniferous trees evolved.

Dendrolycopodiumobscurum is actually a clubmoss, which is an incredibly complicated group of plants that were integral in the colonization of terrestrial habitats by plants. This story is about to get technical, so I’ll give you a moment to refresh your coffee, your tea, or whatever beverage you may be dependent on at this time of day. A little snack may also be in order, because we’re about to wander back to a time in Earth’s history called the Carboniferous Period. Ah, now you realize you need more coffee. I knew it.

Anyway, there was a time when the majority of plants reproduced in a most peculiar way and it all has to do with the number of chromosomes in the plants’ cells. In the case of humans, we are known as “diploid” organisms, which means that we have two copies of each chromosome in our cells. But for reproduction we generate special “haploid” cells (known as “gametes”) that contain only one copy of each chromosome. Combine a male gamete (a sperm cell) with a female gamete (an egg cell, or ovule) under the right conditions and you end up with a new diploid offspring; what we in the scientific world would technically call a baby.

Dendrolycopodiumobscurum does things differently. The diploid organisms produce spores, which are haploid cells that somehow manage to grow independently. These odd little organisms are known as “gametophytes” because they grow, live for a while and then produce the haploid reproductive cells that we just learned to call “gametes.” These gametes are released into the environment and if male and female gametes happen to meet up, they will join forces and produce a diploid organism that will grow to a much larger size; so much larger, in fact, that we can see them growing above ground.

Back in the Carboniferous Period, from roughly 360 million to 300 million years ago, the great supercontinent Pangaea had areas that were dominated by the gigantic ancestors of today’s diminutive princess pine. Growing as large as trees in ecosystems that were stable for millions of years, these enormous “fern trees” would grow and die in such vast numbers that their dead remains would eventually become the coal deposits that we are now dependent on for much of our electricity.

But human ingenuity also found surprising uses for the modern princess pine, a couple of which I was really surprised to learn about while doing research for this column. Obviously, the tough green “leaves” of this plant were an attractive addition to holiday arrangements, especially Christmas wreaths. But it also turns out that the spores produced by the diploid organisms were also highly sought after for a variety of uses such as flash powder and fireworks.

The spores are extremely small and would best be described as a very fine powder. In the world of modern flowering plants, the equivalent substance would be called pollen, though the two are not quite the same. Anyway, it turns out that the extremely fine powder consisting of clubmoss spores burns very brightly at rather low temperatures. As a result, it was highly sought after for use in magic shows and theatrical performances. The demand for clubmoss powder was so great that the plants became endangered in many states, forcing chemists to come up with something else that wouldn’t threaten the survival of the species.

We are about to get involved in the great tradition of Thanksgiving and if you are anything like me you might take advantage of some nice weather to go for a walk in the woods. If you are lucky enough to be able to do this, then keep your eyes peeled for a patch of princess pine growing on the forest floor. They tend to like open oak forests, but you never know where they might pop up. Then, try to imagine one of these little plants growing 50 feet tall in a time before dinosaurs roamed the earth. It might be just the sort of thing you need to free your mind from the present and allow it to drift on a gentle breeze of imagination. Happy Thanksgiving everyone!

Bill Danielson has been a professional writer and nature photographer for 25 years. He has worked for the National Park Service, the US Forest Service, the Nature Conservancy and the Massachusetts State Parks and he currently teaches high school biology and physics. For more in formation visit his website at www.speakingofnature.com, or head over to Speaking of Nature on Facebook.


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