Lycopodium – Clubmoss

Clubmoss: The ingredients are not only used in medicine, but also in pyrotechnics and by the police. The plant is protected in Germany.

© Martina Berg -

Clubmoss grew on earth more than 370 million years ago. In early Devon, tree-like species grew to almost 40 metres high in tropical swamps. Today’s herbaceous varieties have hardly changed in over 300 million years, meaning that it is one of the oldest group of plants in the world. Lycopodium clavatum L. has an evergreen, creeping main stem from which upright shoots branch off and develop into the club-shaped sporophylls (where the spores develop) characteristic of the species (clavatum = club, referring to the structure).

The genus name Lycopodium, from the Greek lykos (wolf) and podion (little foot), describes the claw-like appearance of the grassy shoots which are densely covered in scale-like leaves that taper to narrow, white, hair-like tips.

Clubmoss is found mainly in the northern hemisphere in cool, temperate climates, growing primarily in sandy and loamy soils low in lime and nutrients (happily mixing with blueberry and heather, for instance).

The spores contain up to 50% greasy oil, 20% sporonin, acids, resin, rubber and traces of alkaloids. Caution: the plant is poisonous. Mice and frogs feeding on clubmoss in the forest do not take kindly to its effects at all, for instance. Alkaloids similar to the arrow poison, curare, can be found in the clubmoss – 0.2 grams can be life-threatening to small animals.

The plant is described in Hieronymus Bock’s plant manual of 1539 under the name “Beerlap”. In the mid 16th century, it was then introduced into German apothecaries. Traditional indications include renal and bladder disorders, colic and diarrhoea. It has analgesic, diuretic, cooling, haemostatic and spasmolytic properties.

Clubmoss is used in pyrotechnics for making fireworks. The shamanic healers of the Neolithic Age used the plant to produce bright, shooting flames. When fire-eaters at carnivals and in the circus spit out the spores into a flame, the result is a spectacular ball of fire. This effect has earned clubmoss names such as flash or witch powder. Clubmoss spores are indispensable to the police, since they are used to make fingerprints visible. In the pharmaceutical industry, the powdered spores are used as a non-stick coating for condoms and surgical gloves. The dried, mature spores of the plant are used in homeopathy.