Earth Journal

Vol. 8, No. 49
Dec. 7-13, 2000
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Creeping Jenny in the Winter Woods
By Audrey Y. Scharmen

Between the last leaf and the first snow, the woodlands are bleak indeed. It is then I am grateful for the conifers and holly, the winter greens of Bay Country. And the wonderful running pine that comes into its own at this time.

I first saw it years ago in early November as a miniature forest of delicate green fronds covering the leaf litter. All about were tiny candelabrum from which rose puffs of golden dust, like smoke, as I tiptoed carefully through the ankle-deep patch. The candelabrum contain the spores of the plant, so ancient it is listed in botanicals just behind the horsetails.

It is lycopodium complanata, known colloquially as crowsfoot, creeping Jenny, festoon pine and Christmas green. Its tendrils are the beloved garlands that adorn the mantles and doors of Bay Country homes at this season. Like stuffed hams and oysters, they are essential trappings of a Southern Maryland Christmas.

The fine powder produced by the plant is unique. Also known as vegetable brimstone, it is flammable and was used centuries ago in the early stage plays of Shakespeare to create special effects. A palmful, tossed into the air and ignited, will produce dazzling streaks of blue-tinged lightning. I have tried this in my fireplace and it is truly the stuff of wizards.

Vegetable brimstone was also used in the manufacture of the first firecrackers and as a source of illumination for early flash photography as well as a soothing remedy for chafes and wounds. The spores are so uniform in size that they were employed as a standard in microscopic measurements. It is believed that cannel coal was formed by prehistoric deposits of such spores.

We take the greens of our winter woods so for granted, I muse as I gather some holly and cut aromatic boughs from an old juniper. I covet the garlands of crowsfoot, but it is becoming scarce in our woodland. Thus I leave untouched the only patch that grows nearby.

As I walk back to the trail, I see satin leaves of wintergreen peeping above the tarnished gold of autumn, with tips of the foliage of rare cranefly orchids and uncommon ferns, so I linger to admire them and the fronds of the running pine, which do so resemble the claws of the crows that scold from the treetops. And I ponder the destiny of such botanicals, which have lived here on Earth for millions of years and have blessed the barren forests of many Christmases past.

Copyright 2000
Bay Weekly