Cooper’s hawk watching for prey

“In seed time learn, in harvest teach, in winter enjoy.”
William Blake

Getting outside in the winter can take some serious nudging if the cold is a factor, but when prodding has done its work, expect to find things of interest as you walk, hike or even drive along. A backyard or a hiking trail can provide more interesting viewing than television programs offer and things we see will probably pique our curiosity as well.  

Cladonia arbuscula lichen

Cladonia arbuscula is a fruticose lichen, that is, its shape resembles a tiny shrub. Highly branched, it occurs on the ground in open acidic areas, sometimes forming large areas of tufted mats. It is one of many lichens commonly referred to as reindeer lichens. It is light gray-green or cream and has a puffy appearance.

Princess pine, Lycopodium obscurum, a flat-branched species of club moss, is a  common forest understory plant  of North America. It is actually neither a low- growing conifer nor a moss but is instead  closely related to ferns and horsetails. They have green scale-like leaves and yellow to tan sporophylls on branch tips that produce spores.  

Princess pine covering the ground in the Connecticut woods
Princess pine sporophylls

Sometimes when hiking in New England woods you come across stone walls. In the past, these were probably erected as borders along the edge of woods on farmland. Over the years, as farms are abandoned or fields are no longer cultivated, the land cleared for fields has returned its original woodland habitat. Robert Thorson, a landscape geologist at the University of Connecticut, estimates that there are more than 100,000 miles of these old stone walls which could circle the globe 4 times.

Stone wall in the deep woods

On a recent trip to the shoreline in Old Lyme, right after a strong winter storm, there were tons (probably!) of shells washed up above the normal high-tide mark. If you find a tan, spiral string of cases, check this out. These are the egg casings of a whelk and contain a bunch of tiny whelks in each case. Sometimes people open one up and think it is just sand inside, but if you look carefully you may see any remaining whelks inside.

Spiral egg cases of a whelk

Broomsedge bluestem Andorpogon virginicus is a native grass that turns bright orange in late fall and remains upright throughout much of the winter season, often standing tall above snow cover. Seeds are a source of food for birds and small animals. This plant also supports various Skipper butterfly larva and small butterflies obtain nectar from the flowers.

Broomsedge in winter

Telling the difference between red and pitch pines has become easier as I have learned that red pine needles are in bundles of two, and pitch pine needles are in bundles of three, and are often twisted. Red pine has smaller cones and lack the stout spines on individual scales that characterizes those of pitch pines. Also, red pine bark peels away on upper trunk and branches revealing a nice red color.

Pitch pine cone has stout spines on the scales
Image of red pine- cone has no spines on the scales and needles are in bundles of two
Peeling red pine bark on older tree

Other things I came across recently include melted snow where deer had bedded down, a red-shouldered hawk in the neighborhood and a Cooper’s hawk perched on a dead tree looking for prey, a trunk of a small tree damaged by a deer rubbing its antlers, interesting cloud formations and a Promethea moth cocoon dangling from a spicebush twig. As my nephew, Ben, once stated when observing nature as a small boy, “the excitement never ends”.

Red shouldered hawk in a landscape tree
Promethea moth cocoon structure
Tree with bark rubbed off by a buck rubbing its antlers
Clouds lined up in a winter sky

Pamm Cooper- UConn Home and Garden Education Center

Wandering through the woods across the street from my childhood home, I was always anxious to identify the next new plant or bird I encountered. Leafing through the pages of my well-worn Golden Guides, I would do my best to pick out the specimen and then mark it off in the table of contents – my plant and bird life lists before I know what one was.

golden guides trees

Golden Guide from

None of the Golden Guides I owned were able to identify this one curious, moss-like plant and it wasn’t until I took botany in college that I discovered club mosses. The three species I most commonly happened upon in woodland and wetland walks were shining club moss (now called shining firmoss, Huperzia lucidula), running cedar (Diphasiastrum digitatum) and ground pine (Dendrolycopodium obscurum).


Shining fir moss from Wikipedia commons

running cedar diphasiastrum from wikipedia

Running cedar from

Truthfully, I had not been giving club mosses much thought these days until my brother presented me with a frosty fern as a holiday hosting gift. Looking up care for a frosty fern (Selaginella krausuanna variegatus), I discovered that it is a club moss relative. The secret to keeping a frosty fern is bright light but not direct sun, adequate moisture and a good dose of humidity. The watering part is not hard but it is difficult to keep heated homes humid during the cold winter months.

frosty fern

Frosty fern. Photo by dmp, 2018

All of these plants were at one time placed in the Lycopodiaceae family and into the Lycopodium genus. These plants have since been reclassified and like asters, their older, easier to pronounce Latin names have been changed. Now the Flora of North America recognizes 7 genera and 27 species although there are probably several hundred species worldwide. Since they do share many similar characteristics, I’m going to group these fascinating plants together when discussing their natural history and life cycles.

Club mosses or lycophytes evolved over 410 million years ago. They were one of the earliest groups of vascular plants. In case you need a biology class reminder, vascular plants have xylem and phloem tissues that move water, nutrients and carbohydrates throughout the plant. During the Carboniferous geologic period (360 – 286 million years ago), lycophytes along with ferns and horsetails were dominant forms of vegetation in some areas of the planet with some club mosses reaching 100 feet in height. As these plants died out by 250 million years ago, their petrified remains became today’s coal and fossil fuel beds.

gettyimages-carbon era

Vegetation in Carboniferous period consisted of huge club mosses, ferns, horsetails and other plants. From Getty Images.

Lycophytes are evergreen plants and fairly cosmopolitan in nature found from the arctic to temperate forests to the tropics. As a general rule of thumb, most tropical lycophytes are epiphytes and most arctic and temperate ones are terrestrial. Although the species native to this area often appear to look like separate miniature evergreens, they are generally connected together by rhizomes or runners. What appear to be leaves are actually structures called microphylls. They have but a single cylinder of vascular tissue to carry water and nutrients.

Plants have a curious but primitive reproductive system – they reproduce by spores. In some club moss species, club-like appendages, called strobili, are produced on the tops of the conifer-like plants. These have structures called sporangia (singular is sporangium). In other species, the sporangia are formed on certain ‘leaves’ of the plant. Wherever they occur, each sporangium produces large numbers of tiny spores. These are often collected and sold as lycopodium powder. The spores germinate to form gametophytes which then go on to produce eggs and sperm. Sometimes the gametophyte generation develops below ground with the help of mycorrhizal fungi and sometimes above ground, depending on the lycophyte species. Eventually the sperm fertilizes the eggs and the sporophyte generation, which is the plant we see above ground, arises. It may take up to 15 years for the plant to complete its sexual reproductive phase. Some club mosses can also reproduce asexually by means of rhizomes or runners and some even have specialized groups of cells on the tips of their stems, called gemmae, that fall off and become new plants.

princess pine

Princess pine aka Dendrolycopodium obscurum with ‘clubs’ or strobili. Photo by dmp, 2019

Humans have found many uses for club mosses including holiday decorations. Because the plants are so slow growing, this practice is frowned upon and should be discouraged.

princess pine 3

Ground pine colonies are found in deciduous hardwood forests. Photo by dmp, 2019

Since ancient times, Native Americans as well as Europeans have used the spores and leaves for medicinal purposes such as to cure digestive and urinary tract problems, for skin ailments and inducing labor. Because the spores repel water, they were used by pharmacists to coat pills, to treat skin rashes and even on babies’ bottoms. They were also used as dye plants.

Another property of spores is that they are highly flammable. This lead to them being used by Native Americans for ceremonial purposes, in early flash photography, fireworks and in stage productions. Lycopodium powder is still sold for many purposes including their pyrotechnic properties!

Happy Horticultural New Year!

Dawn P.