Lycopodium clavatum (PROTA)

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Plant Resources of Tropical Africa
List of species

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Lycopodium clavatum L.

Protologue: Sp. pl. 2: 1101 (1753).
Family: Lycopodiaceae
Chromosome number: 2n = 68, 102, 136

Vernacular names

  • Staghorn clubmoss, common clubmoss, ground pine, running pine (En).
  • Lycopode à massue (Fr).
  • Licopódio chifre de veado (Po).

Origin and geographic distribution

In continental Africa Lycopodium clavatum is found from Nigeria east to Ethiopia and south to South Africa. It is also indigenous in the Indian Ocean Islands. It is found in all continents except Australia and is most common in boreal regions.


In many countries throughout the world Lycopodium clavatum is used as a medicinal plant. In southern Nigeria a decoction of young leaves is applied externally to wounds and ulcers. Sun-dried, pulverized leaves are mixed with plantain and milk, and the mixture is given in small doses to children to cure diarrhoea and dysentery. In eastern DR Congo the plant is used to repel insects. In Rwanda an extract of the aerial parts is drunk to cure dysentery and malaria. In Madagascar the whole plant is grilled with sugarcane and banana skins and applied to cracked lips to promote healing. In Lesotho the whole dried plant is pulverized and smoked as a cure for headache. In New Guinea and in the Philippines the whole plant is chewed to induce vomiting after food poisoning or acute stomach pain. North-American Indians apply the aerial parts as a remedy for stiff joints. In traditional European medicine it has been used as a diuretic in oedema, as a strong medicine to cure diarrhoea and dysentery, to suppress spasms and hydrophobia, to treat gout and scurvy, as a tonic and as a wound powder. It was also applied against affections of the urinary tract and inflammations of the bladder or kidneys.

The spores traded as ‘lycopodium seed’, ‘pulverized lycopodium’, ‘vegetable sulphur’ or ‘sporae lycopodii’, have been used for centuries as a styptic and as a dusting powder in various skin diseases such as eczema and erysipelas and for chafed skin, to prevent pills from sticking together and for metal-casting moulds. The aerial parts are still a popular medicine in phytotherapy, and used to alleviate anxiety, anticipatory fears, apprehension, over-sensitivity and inability to adapt to new surroundings. They are also used to treat constipation, bloating, digestive upset, heartburn, migraine, dryness of mucous membranes, dry wrinkled skin, sallow complexion and a plethora of other inconveniences.

Lycopodium clavatum is one of the ingredients of a remedy to alleviate jet lag. It is used as a feed additive for cows to improve their constitution and as a cure for anaemia with jaundice and for dogs suffering from fleas. The spores are used as a reference in pollen traps used to monitor pollen in the air to establish hay-fever risks. Sporopollenin, the outer cover of the spores has been found to be a suitable solid support for peptide synthesis. It is stable to chloromethylation and to standard deblocking procedures and its constant mesh size, ready commercial availability and constant molecular structure give it important practical advantages over synthetic resins. Lycopodium clavatum has been used for sifting milk and other liquids and is used as ornamental e.g. for decorations and garlands. The stems are woven into mats and the whole plant is used as a mordant in dyeing.

Production and international trade

Trade statistics on Lycopodium clavatum are rare. China, Nepal, eastern Europe and former Soviet Republics are sources in international trade. In the early 1990s Nepal exported 40 t of the crude herb per year. The wholesale market price per kg spores in early 2001 was US$ 110, and US$ 28 per kg cut and sifted plant material. In some areas, such as western Europe, Lycopodium clavatum has declined in abundance too much to allow collecting.


The aerial parts contain dihydrocaffeic acid, which has a blood pressure lowering effect in animals, as well as alkaloids such as lycopodine, chinoline, clavatine, clavatoxine and annotinine, which all cause an increase in blood pressure. Lycopodine also stimulates the peristaltic movements of the intestine; in in-vivo tests with rats, lycopodine causes contraction of the uterus. Furthermore, the aerial parts contain derivatives of cinnamonic acid and flavonoids; the ash contains 3.5–12.5% aluminium. A methanol extract showed strong prolyl-endopeptidase-inhibiting activity and is expected to have activity against loss of memory.

The spores contain about 50% greenish yellow acidic oil, 3% sugar, 1–4% ash and a trace of a volatile alkaloid. The spores are highly inflammable because of the oil, which contains 80–86% decyl-isopropyl acrylic acid, 3–5% glycerine and solid fatty acids (mainly myristic acid). Other analyses showed a neutral oil, 8.2% glycerine, 5.3% protein and no alkaloids. In several pharmacopoeias Lycopodium clavatum spores form a pharmacologically indifferent, fine, pale yellow, very mobile, inodorous and tasteless powder. The powder should be free from pollen, starch, sand and other impurities. When ignited with free access to air, the spores should not leave more than 5% ash. The spores are strongly water repellent. Lycopodium clavatum spores used as dusting powder can cause asthma and other allergy problems (itchy skin, eye and nose problems) when used over a long period. The powder is safe for consumers who are exposed to small amounts, but hepatotoxic effects have been observed. When the spores enter surgical wounds a lesion may develop months or even years later.


Herb with creeping main stem, rooting at long intervals, much branched, usually up to 1.5 m long and 2–4 mm in diameter (excluding the leaves); erect shoots up to 60(–80) cm long, dichotomously branched. Leaves arranged spirally or apparently in rows, linear-lanceolate, 4–7 mm × 0.5–1 mm, apex narrowly acute to attenuate, with translucent hair-point 2–4 mm long, margin indistinctly toothed to entire, midrib distinct. Cone-like structures producing spores terminal on branches, erect, cylindrical, 1–8 cm × 4–6 mm, 1–6 together; sporophylls ovate, 1.5–3.5(–5) mm × c. 1 mm, appressed, imbricate, apex elongated, with a 1.5–4 mm long spreading hair-point, margins irregularly toothed; sporangium globose to kidney-shaped, c. 1 mm × 1.5 mm, bright ochreous. Spores globose, with a 3-radiate scar, reticulate, bright yellow.

Other botanical information

Lycopodium comprises about 40 species. Formerly many more species were included in Lycopodium, but most of these have been separated into the genera Huperzia and Lycopodiella. Lycopodium clavatum is very variable, and there is a nearly continuous series of forms from compact plants with parallel branches and firm, imbricate leaves to amply branched plants with diverging branches and soft, spreading leaves. The former are typical for cold and exposed habitats, the latter for warm and sheltered locations.

Several Huperzia species have medicinal uses in Madagascar. Huperzia phlegmaria (L.) Rothm. (synonym: Lycopodium phlegmaria L.), an epiphytic herb with pendant stems found in forests in large parts of tropical Africa, tropical Asia, Australia and New Zealand, Huperzia stricta (Baker) Tardieu (synonym: Lycopodium strictum Baker), an endemic terrestrial herb from Madagascar, Huperzia megastachya (Baker) Tardieu (synonym: Lycopodium megastachyum Baker), an endemic epiphytic herb from Madagascar, and Huperzia obtusifolia (Sw.) Rothm. (synonym: Lycopodium obtusifolium Sw.), an epiphytic herb from Madagascar and Réunion all share several vernacular names in Madagascar. The dried plant is smoked and the fresh leaves are used in an infusion as a tonic or fortifier. The infusion is also given to dancers, wrestlers, fighting cocks and bulls. Since cannabis (Cannabis sativa L.) is an illegal drug in Madagascar, the Huperzia species are much sought after as a substitute.

Growth and development

The spores of Lycopodium clavatum remain dormant for 3–8 years. During this period they settle in the soil at a depth of 3–10 cm and this, combined with a relatively thick spore wall, may retard germination considerably. When spores are exposed to sulfuric acid, germination takes only 2 months. The subterranean prothallus develops slowly and reaches sexual maturity after 6–15 years and may live for 20 years. It is top-shaped, differentiated into various tissues and lives in close symbiosis with a fungus, possibly a species of Pythium. Without the fungus, the development of the gametophyte stops at an early, few-celled stage. Once the sporophyte has established, it can spread rapidly by the long creeping stems. If competition with higher growing plants is not strong, it is long-lived and slowly forms large colonies.


Lycopodium clavatum is found in cool, wet climates where it prefers open habitats such as mountain sides, moors and heaths, clearings and road cuttings in cloud forest. In the tropics it grows in highland areas above 1300 m altitude. It is often found as one of the pioneers on bare soil of road embankments and recently burned patches, frequently accompanied by ferns.

Propagation and planting

Lycopodium clavatum is usually propagated by division of the main stem. The long juvenile phase of the prothalli make propagation by spores virtually impossible. Lycopodium clavatum is difficult to transplant but once established it may grow vigorously. A well-draining potting mix is recommended.

No successful mass production method either by traditional cultivation or by tissue culture has been developed for any Lycopodium species.

Diseases and pests

The fungus Leptosphaeria crepini has been recorded on Lycopodium clavatum; it blackens the sporophylls with abundant fruiting bodies.


Collectors cut the spore-producing tops from the plants, and the spore powder is obtained by shaking the tops and sifting out the other matter. The annual yield is rather variable, depending on spore production.

Genetic resources

Lycopodium clavatum is extremely widespread, but in some areas it is threatened with extinction.


At present Lycopodium clavatum is utilized for various purposes. Research is being carried out to elucidate the value of the many pharmacological claims. Specially promising is the application of alkaloids in the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease and in increasing efficiency of learning and memorizing. Cultivation would be desirable, both for the quality of the crude herb and spores and for its protection.

Major references

  • Burkill, H.M., 2000. The useful plants of West Tropical Africa. 2nd Edition. Volume 5, Families S–Z, Addenda. Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, Richmond, United Kingdom. 686 pp.
  • Cullinan, P., Cannon, J., Sheril, D. & Newman Taylor, A., 1993. Asthma following occupational exposure to Lycopodium clavatum in condom manufacturers. Thorax 48(7): 774–775.
  • de Winter, W.P., 2003. Lycopodium clavatum L. In: de Winter, W.P. & Amoroso, V.B. (Editors). Plant Resources of South-East Asia No 15(2): Cryptogams: Ferns and fern allies. Backhuys Publishers, Leiden, Netherlands. pp. 123–126.
  • Ma, X. & Gang, D.R., 2004. The Lycopodium alkaloids. Natural Product Reports 21(6): 752–772.
  • May, L.W., 1978. The economic uses and associated folklore of ferns and fern allies. Botanical Review 44: 491–528.
  • Verdcourt, B., 2005. Lycopodiaceae. In: Beentje, H.J. & Ghazanfar, S.A. (Editors). Flora of Tropical East Africa. Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, Richmond, United Kingdom. 19 pp.

Other references

  • Boiteau, P., Boiteau, M. & Allorge-Boiteau, L., 1999. Dictionnaire des noms malgaches de végétaux. 4 Volumes + Index des noms scientifiques avec leurs équivalents malgaches. Editions Alzieu, Grenoble, France.
  • Debray, M., Jacquemin, H. & Razafindrambao, R., 1971. Contribution à l’inventaire des plantes médicinales de Madagascar. Travaux et Documents No 8. ORSTOM, Paris, France. 150 pp.
  • Lawalrée, A., 1989. Lycopodiaceae. In: Bamps, P. (Editor). Flore d’Afrique centrale. Pteridophytes. Jardin botanique national de Belgique, Brussels, Belgium. 22 pp.
  • Neuwinger, H.D., 2000. African traditional medicine: a dictionary of plant use and applications. Medpharm Scientific, Stuttgart, Germany. 589 pp.
  • Pichi Sermolli, R.E.G., 1983. A contribution to the knowledge of the Pteridophyta of Rwanda, Burundi and Kivu (Zaire). Bulletin du Jardin Botanique National de Belgique 53: 177–284.
  • Rwangabo, P.C., 1993. La médecine traditionelle au Rwanda. Agence de Coopération Culturelle et Technique (ACCT), Paris, France. 258 pp.
  • Schelpe, E.A.C.L.E., 1970. Lycopodiaceae. In: Exell, A.W. & Launert, E. (Editors). Flora Zambesiaca. Pteridophyta. Crown Agents for Oversea Governments and Administrations, London, United Kingdom. pp. 15–22.
  • Tardieu-Blot, M.-L., 1964. Lycopodiaceae. Flore du Cameroun. Volume 3. Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle, Paris, France. pp. 9–17.
  • Tardieu-Blot, M.-L., 1971. Huperziacées (Huperziaceae). Flore de Madagascar et des Comores, familles 13 et 13 bis. Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle, Paris, France. pp. 15–48.
  • Tardieu-Blot, M.-L., 1971. Lycopodiacées (Lycopodiaceae). Flore de Madagascar et des Comores, familles 13 et 13 bis. Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle, Paris, France. pp. 3–13.
  • Tezuka, Y., Fan, W., Kasimu, R. & Kadota, S., 1999. Screening of crude drug extracts for prolyl endopeptidase inhibitory activity. Phytomedicine 6(3): 197–203.
  • Tulp, M. & Bohlin, L., 2005. Rediscovery of known natural compounds: nuisance or goldmine? Bioorganic & Medicinal Chemistry 13(17): 5274–5282.
  • Watt, J.M. & Breyer-Brandwijk, M.G., 1962. The medicinal and poisonous plants of southern and eastern Africa. 2nd Edition. E. and S. Livingstone, London, United Kingdom. 1457 pp.
  • Yamada, T., 1999. A report of the ethnobotany of the Nyindu in the eastern part of the former Zaire. African Study Monographs 20(1): 1–72.

Sources of illustration

  • de Winter, W.P., 2003. Lycopodium clavatum L. In: de Winter, W.P. & Amoroso, V.B. (Editors). Plant Resources of South-East Asia No 15(2): Cryptogams: Ferns and fern allies. Backhuys Publishers, Leiden, Netherlands. pp. 123–126.


  • C. Zimudzi, Department of Biology, National University of Lesotho, P.O. Roma 180, Lesotho
  • C.H. Bosch, PROTA Network Office Europe, Wageningen University, P.O. Box 341, 6700 AH Wageningen, Netherlands

Correct citation of this article

Zimudzi, C. & Bosch, C.H., 2008. Lycopodium clavatum L. In; Schmelzer, G.H. & Gurib-Fakim, A. (Editors). PROTA (Plant Resources of Tropical Africa / Ressources végétales de l’Afrique tropicale), Wageningen, Netherlands. Accessed 11 April 2021.