Wild Ideas: Green treasures on the winter forest floor

Crows foot growing with spotted wintergreen. Photo by Pam Owen.

As the leaves have fallen off, the green wall of oak-hickory forest behind my house has given way to glimpses of mountains and valleys to the south and west. With the lush green of summer and the brilliant fall colors now a memory, any spot of green left tends to beckon me when I walk back there.

The slope is dry, the soil poor. Other than a few spunky baby pines waiting for the deciduous trees around them to keel over and let in more light so they can take over, there is little relief from the sea of browns and grays this time of year.

Most precipitation drains off so fast that moisture is retained only in a few spots where underlying rock has tumbled or worn in such a way as to slow the downhill progress of water and organic detritus, creating pockets of richer, moister soil than on the rest of the slope. In one of those spots, an understory evergreen common to the region — Christmas fern (Polystichum acrostichoides) — has sprouted here and there. According to some sources, its name came from the early colonists’ using it as a Christmas decoration.

Also known as the dagger fern because of the knife-like shape of its sturdy pinna (the leafy parts) and hilt on the stem end, the Christmas fern is no delicate plant. If it were, it wouldn’t stay green through winter.

The Christmas fern adds color to the forest floor through winter. Photo by Pam Owen.

This large (18 to 36 inches) fern is “one of the most characteristic and abundant herbs of mesic [moderately moist] mixed hardwood forests,” according to the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR). While it prefers rich, moist soil and shade, it is less picky than some other ferns and is quite tolerant of direct sunlight and will even grow on dry slopes. These characteristics, and the fact that is not invasive, make it a popular landscaping plant. As the Virginia Native Plant Society notes, the Christmas fern also “serves as a wonderful host for butterfly larvae.”

In walking recently on a friend’s property along the Rappahannock River, where the soil is much richer and wetter than in my woods, I enjoyed the lush abundance of Christmas ferns there. With the recent cold snap, some of these had hunkered down a bit, appearing more prostrate than their usual perky selves but still showing remarkable resilience compared with the mostly brown understory around them. Despite their daggerlike pinna, they gave a soft, lush look to otherwise drab slopes.

Although I’ve never thought of using this fern as a holiday decoration, I do have fond memories of going out with my brother into the “wilderness” near our house in the Town of Fairfax when I was 6 or 7 to collect other greenery for that purpose. This included “crow’s foot” (Lycopodium digitatum), a vining, ground-hugging evergreen whose foliage resembles the foot of a crow, although with more and softer green digits. It’s also known as fan club moss, ground cedar or running cedar. I loved that plant and its association with Christmas, looking for it in vain on my hikes around Virginia in later years.

As kids, we considered all land not turned into subdivision as ours to roam and plunder, not thinking that anyone would care. As an adult I realize that, not only were we trespassing and stealing, we were also loving nature to death by bringing it home — from animals to plants to stones. Even then, collectors were admiring crow’s foot and other club mosses almost to extinction — to the point where they had to be protected by law.

Club mosses, in the genus Lycopodium (Greek for “wolf’s foot”), are delicate-looking, low-growing evergreens that carpet the forest floor. They are considered fern “allies” in that they share a sexual reproductive strategy that involves shedding spores to initiate metagenesis — alternating generations that have different growth phases that are actually two distinct organisms.

Fortunately, because of conservation efforts, plants in the Lycopodium genus are now rebounding in Virginia, and I’ve had the joy of seeing crow’s foot, along with two cousins, Lycopodium clavatum (princess pine) and Lycopodium obscurum (ground pine), growing in Rappahannock County since I moved here 11 years ago. No Lycopodium is currently on DCR’s lists of vascular plants of concern. However, some similar-looking plants that are also called clubmosses, but that have been reclassified as belonging to other genera, are on those lists.

In general, if you are interested in collecting a wild plant on your property, it’s a good idea to find out whether it’s protected before you whip out your shears or trowel. Contact DCR if you’re not sure, but it’s always best to stick to plants that are abundant if you do want to use some for holiday decorations.

If you really want to do our native plants a favor, whack away at oriental bittersweet (not the native). It has lovely berries; just don’t put them back out where they can take root.

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Pam Owen
About Pam Owen 275 Articles
Writer, editor, photographer, and passionate nature conservationist living in Rappahannock County, in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. Two favorite quotes: By E.O. Wilson, who coined the term "biodiversity," "Nature holds the key to our aesthetic, intellectual, cognitive and even spiritual satisfaction”; by Douglas Adams, “I love deadlines. I love the whooshing sound they make as they pass by.”