What does Christmas have in common with Earth’s Carboniferous period? More than it should. There are several decorative plants associated with Christmas (ex. pine trees, holly, poinsettias and mistletoe), but you’ve probably never heard of Lycopodia. Lycopodia grow on forest floors as long, horizontal stems that produce short, scaly shoots resembling pine saplings. But Lycopodia are not pines. They are, in fact, a very old and unique lineage of plants that have grown on Earth for 400 million years.
Waaaay back in the Carboniferous Period, before any pine tree or flowering plant, Lycopodia grew to tremendous heights. They dominated the landscape, spreading out in thick, swamp-like forests that would one day become the fossil fuels that run your car. They survived several mass extinctions, but Christmas may be their undoing. Around Christmastime, the pine-ish Lycopodia are collected for decorations. The long runners are easy to gather and perfect for making wreaths and garlands. The shoots can also be fashioned into tiny, decorative Christmas trees you can show off on Pinterest. Unfortunately, there are no laws regulating the harvest of Lycopodia and the plant grows extremely slow, too slow to keep up with our festive demands. Because the rate of Christmases far outstrips the rate of Lycopodia growth, we could be a wassailing this fascinating plant right into extinction.
Photo by Kirisame via Wikimedia Commons.