Lycopodium clavatum (PROSEA)

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Plant Resources of South-East Asia
List of species

Lycopodium clavatum L.

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


Lycopodium officinale Neck. (1771), Lepidotis clavata P. Beauv. (1805), Lycopodium trichiatum Blume (1828).

Vernacular names

  • Staghorn clubmoss (En). Common clubmoss, ground pine, running pine (Am). Lycopode à massue (Fr)
  • Indonesia: pakis simbar, purwalata (Javanese), rane diuk (Sundanese)
  • Laos: kout khi khep khur
  • Philippines: licopodio (Tagalog)
  • Thailand: kut khon (northern), sam yoi rot (peninsular)
  • Vietnam: thạch tùng dùi.

Origin and geographic distribution

L. clavatum is a widespread species with unknown origin but with an almost global distribution. It is found in all continents except Australia. It is most common in boreal regions, especially Siberia. In South-East Asia and other tropical regions it is confined to mountainous regions.


In many civilizations L. clavatum has been appreciated as medicine. In the central highlands of New Guinea and in the Philippines it is chewed to induce vomiting after food poisoning or acute stomach pain. The North-American Indians applied it as a remedy for stiff joints. In traditional European medicine it has been used as a diuretic in dropsy, as a strong medicine to cure diarrhoea, dysentery and suppression of urine, a nervine in spasms and hydrophobia, an aperient in gout and scurvy, a corroborant in rheumatism and as a wound powder. It was also applied against retention of the urine due to grit of a kidney stone, affections of the urinary tract, inflammations of the bladder or kidney and kidney stones.

A late 19th Century herbal mentions the uses of L. clavatum against e.g. intractable forms of fever, red urine or urine containing mucus, blood, or red, sandy deposits, dyspepsia, indigestion, palpitation, constipation, borborygmus and water brash. Applications against spasmodic retention of urine in children, cystic catarrh in adults with painful micturition, cough with bloody expectoration, congestive headache, dizziness and tendency to fainting are indicated as well.

The spores have healing properties both in homeopathy and allopathy though they are no longer often used in the latter. They were known under the trade names "lycopodium seed", "pulverized lycopodium", "vegetable sulphur" or "sporae lycopodii". For centuries the spores have been used as a styptic and as a dusting powder in various skin diseases such as eczema and erysipelas and for excoriated surfaces, to prevent chafing in infants, for pills to prevent them sticking together and for metal casting moulds. Because of their inflammability they were used for flashlights in theatres.

In homeopathic practice L. clavatum is still a popular medicine, said to alleviate anxiety, anticipatory fears, apprehension, over-sensitivity and inability to adapt to new surroundings. Moreover, it is also a homeopathic medicine against constipation, bloating and gas, digestive upset, heartburn, migraine, dryness of mucous membranes, dry wrinkled skin, sallow complexion and a whole plethora of other inconveniences.

Modern applications are as an ingredient of a remedy to alleviate jet lag, as a feed additive for cows to improve their constitution and as a medicine against anaemia with jaundice and for dogs suffering from fleas. In laboratories for monitoring pollen in the air to establish hay-fever risks, the spores are applied to establish a particle base number in the pollen traps. Sporopollenin from L. clavatum has been found to be capable of acting as a solid support for peptide synthesis. It is stable to chloromethylation and to the standard deblocking procedures and its constant mesh size, ready commercial availability and constant molecular structure give it potential important practical advantages over synthetic resins. L. clavatum has been used for sifting milk and other liquids and is used ornamentally e.g. for decorations and garlands.

Production and international trade

Trade statistics on L. clavatum are not known. China, Nepal, eastern Europe, Russia and the other former Soviet Republics are sources in international trade, but there could be other producing countries as well. In some areas, such as western Europe, natural occurrence has declined too much to allow collecting. 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.


Poisonous alkaloids (with 16-18 C and 1-2 N atoms) such as lycopodine, chinoline, clavatine, clavatoxine and annotinine have been found in L. clavatum . All these alkaloids increase blood pressure; lycopodine stimulates the peristaltic movements of the intestine; in rats lycopodine contracts the uterus and the LD50is 27.6 ppm. Furthermore derivatives of cinnamonic acid have been detected, especially of phenolic nature, and flavonoids (e.g. apigenine), whereas the ash contained 3.5-12.5% aluminium. A methanol-extract of L. clavatum (IC50, 1.3 μg/ml) showed strong prolyl-endopeptidase-inhibiting activity and is expected to have activity against loss of memory. The spores contain approximately 50% oil, 3% sugar, 1-4% ash, and a trace of a volatile alkaloid. The spores are highly inflammable because of the greenish-yellow oil which has an acid reaction and contains 80-86% C60H30O2(decyl-isopropyl acrylic acid, a peculiar lycopodium oleic acid), 3-5% glycerine and solid fatty acids (mainly myristic acid). Other analyses showed a neutral oil, a constant amount of glycerine (8.2%), 5.3% protein and no alkaloids. In several pharmacopoeias, in both homeopathy and allopathy L. clavatum spores are officinal and considered to be a pharmacologically indifferent, fine, pale yellow, very mobile, inodorous and tasteless powder. The officinal powder should be free from pollen, starch, sand and other impurities. When ignited with free access to air, L. clavatum spores should not leave more than 5% ash. The spores are strongly water-repellent, e.g. a powdered hand remains dry when submerged in water. L. clavatum spores used as dusting powder can cause asthma and other allergy problems (itchy skin, eye and nose problems) when people are in contact with the powder for a long time. The powder is safe for consumers who are exposed to only small amounts. When the spores enter surgical wounds a lesion may develop months or even years later which clinically resembles tuberculosis or neoplasia. Hepatotoxic effects have been observed after administering L. clavatum spores as homeopathic drug.


A terrestrial herb with creeping shoots, covered with hair-pointed leaves giving the bright green plant a whitish shine . Main stem creeping on the ground, trailing, or hanging over banks, rooting at distant intervals, copiously branched, up to more than 4 m long and 2-4 mm in diameter (excluding the leaves); erect shoots dorsolateral on the main stem, ascending to stiffly erect, 5-25(-50) cm × 0.5-1.1 cm (including leaves), repeatedly branched with a usually distinct main axis, branches terete. Leaves appressed, subdistant to approximate; lamina linear to narrowly lanceolate, (2.5-)4-7(-10) mm × 0.5-1 mm, midrib distinct, margin indistinctly dentate, apex narrowly acute to attenuate, subulate, antrorse; leaves of the branches in spirals or apparently in many rows, lamina similar but with margin entire, apex attenuate subulate, ending in a long, deciduous, 2-4 mm long colourless hair, bright green, ascending to appressed, less often spreading, loosely imbricate. Strobili terminal on branches near the top of the shoot axis, (1-)2(-5) together on sparsely leaved, (2.5-)5-12(-30) cm long, branched peduncles; strobilus erect, cylindrical, 1.5-6(-8.5) cm × 4-6 mm, base narrowed, apex acute; sporophylls appressed, imbricate, ovate-acuminate, 1.5-3.5(-5) mm × 0.8-1.2 mm, base cuneate to cordate or subpeltate, margins dentate to erose-laciniate, apex elongated, with a 1.5-4 mm long spreading hair-point; sporangium globose-reniform, 1 mm × 1.5 mm, bright ochreous. Spores globose, trilete, reticulate, bright yellow, released in great quantities.

Growth and development

The spores of L. clavatum remain dormant for 3-8 years. During this period they settle in the soil at a depth of 3-10 cm. Together with a relatively thick spore wall this may retard germination considerably. However, when spores are exposed to sulfuric acid and cultured, spore germination will take 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 and the population can survive until years after the canopy has closed. If competition with higher growing plants is not strong, it is long-lived and slowly forms large colonies.

Other botanical information

The Lycopodiaceae do not have close affinities to other groups. In older views there was only one genus, Lycopodium L. At present, although there is no general agreement, 3 genera have been separated from Lycopodium , bringing the total to 4 (sometimes, however, splitting goes as far as 12 genera). Lycopodium s.s. comprises about 40 species but opinions differ. L. clavatum is the type species of section Lycopodium of the genus and is widespread and very variable. There is a nearly continuous series of forms from compact plants with parallel branches, sparsely branched peduncles, and firm, imbricate leaves to amply branched plants with diverging branches, branched peduncles and soft, spreading leaves. The former is typical for cold and exposed habitats, the latter for warm and sheltered locations. A large number of synonyms, varieties and forms have been described, only few of which, however, have any systematic or practical value.


L. clavatum is found in cool, wet climates where it prefers open habitats such as mountain sides, moors and heaths, clearings and road cuttings in cloudy forest. In the tropics it grows in mountainous areas above 1300 m altitude. On the bare soil of road embankments it is often found as one of the pioneers, frequently accompanied by ferns of the Gleicheniaceae . The same occurs on recently burned patches although neither can stand burning at all.

Propagation and planting

L. clavatum is usually propagated by division of the rhizome since it is difficult to grow it from stem cuttings although some may produce roots. The long-lived prothalli make propagation by spores virtually impossible. L. clavatum is difficult to transplant but once established it may grow vigorously. A well-drained potting mix is recommended.

Diseases and pests

The fungus Leptosphaeria crepini has been recorded on L. clavatum which blackens the sporophylls with abundant perithecia.


The spores of L. clavatum are gathered in cool, seasonal climates of the northern hemisphere during the months of July and August. Peasants cut the tops (strobili) from the plants and carry them home, where the spore powder is obtained by shaking the tops and sifting out the extraneous matter. As the plant is not plentiful in all years, the annual yield is rather variable.

Genetic resources and breeding

Germplasm collections or breeding programmes do not exist for L. clavatum . It is widespread but in some areas it is threatened with extinction. Germplasm collection is recommended.


At present L. clavatum is well utilized for various purposes. Research is being carried out to elucidate the value of the many pharmacological claims. Cultivation would be desirable, both for the quality of the crude herb and spores and its protection. However, due to its peculiar life-history, further research is needed to solve all practical problems.


  • Cullinan. P., et al., 1993. Asthma following occupational exposure to Lycopodium clavatum in condom manufacturers. Thorax 48(7): 774-775.
  • Dostal, J., 1984. Lycopodiaceae. In: Hegi, G.: Illustrierte Flora von Mitteleuropa [Illustrated flora of central Europe]. 3rd Edition. Band 1. Teil 1. Dostal, J. & Reichstein, T. (Editors): Pteridophyta. Paul Parey, Berlin, Germany. pp. 16-42.
  • Hegnauer, R., 1962-1986. Chemotaxonomie der Pflanzen [Chemotaxonomy of the plants]. Birkhäuser Verlag, Basel, Boston, Stuttgart. Band 1. (1962). pp. 230-237; Band 7. (1986). pp. 406-411.
  • Øllgaard, B., 1987. A revised classification of the Lycopodiaceae sensu lato. Opera Botanica 92: 153-178.
  • Quisumbing, E., 1951. Medicinal plants of the Philippines. Technical Bulletin 16. Department of Agriculture and Natural Resources, Manila, The Philippines. pp. 70-72.
  • Tagawa, M. & Iwatsuki, K. (Volume editors), 1979-1989. Pteridophytes. In: Smitinand, T., Larsen, K. (Series editors): Flora of Thailand. Vol. 3. Forest Herbarium, Royal Forest Department, Bangkok, Thailand. pp. 7-13.
  • Tezuka, Y., et al., 1999. Screening of crude drug extracts for prolyl endopeptidase inhibitory activity. Phytomedicine 6(3): 197-203.
  • Tsai, J.L. & Shieh, W.C., 1994. Lycopodiaceae. In: Huang, Tseng-Chieng (General Editor), 1994. Flora of Taiwan. 2nd Edition, Vol. 1. Pteridophyta and Gymnospermae. Editorial Committee of the Flora of Taiwan, Taipei, Taiwan. pp. 29-44.
  • van Os, F.H.L., 1968. De wolfsklauw of Lycopodium als geneeskruid [The clubmoss or Lycopodium as medicinal herb]. Pharmaceutisch Weekblad 103: 893-898.


W.P. de Winter