Lycopodium complanatum (PROSEA)

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Plant Resources of South-East Asia
List of species

Lycopodium complanatum L.

Protologue: Sp. pl.: 1104 (1753).
Family: Lycopodiaceae
Chromosome number: 2n= (44-)46(-48)


Diphasium complanatum (L.) Rothm. (1944), Diphasium anceps (Wallr.) A. Löve & D. Löve (1958, nom. illegit.), Diphasiastrum complanatum (L.) Holub (1975).

Vernacular names

  • Flat clubmoss (En). Northern running-pine (Am). Lycopode aplatie (Fr)
  • Indonesia: purwalata (Javanese)
  • Vietnam: thạch tùng giẹp, thạch tùng dẹt, rêu thềm nhà.

Origin and geographic distribution

L. complanatum is widely distributed in the temperate regions of the northern hemisphere. In South-East Asia and other tropical and subtropical regions it may occur in high mountainous areas.


L. complanatum is widely collected from the wild for ornamental purposes (e.g. in Christmas decorations). Medicinally, the whole plant of L. complanatum is used, usually dried and powdered for infusions. It is said to be a powerful diuretic, promoting urine and removing obstructions of the liver and spleen. It is valued as a remedy in jaundice, rheumatism and most of the chronic diseases. A decoction, combined with dandelion ( Taraxacum officinale Weber) and agrimony ( Agrimonia eupatoria L.), is used as a herbal remedy for liver complaints and obstructions. The spores, in large quantities a fine yellowish powder, are used for dusting pills, suppositories and rubber gloves and in powders, soaps and shampoos. The Scandinavian Vikings used it for dying of fabrics, probably as a mordant because of its aluminium content.

Production and international trade

L. complanatum is not cultivated commercially. Statistics for production or trade are not available.


L. complanatum contains about 0.25% alkaloids such as lycopodine and clavatine and the ash contains 16-25 % aluminium and 6-7% SiO2. Lycopodine is a poison which causes paralysis of the motoric nerves while clavatine is toxic to many mammals. The spores, however, are not toxic. Spores of L. complanatum contain large amounts (up to 30%) of hexadenic acid; the spore powder is inflammable and can cause burns. Because spores are used on surgical gloves, granulomatous reactions in wounds can occur. Spores used in cosmetics can cause dermatitis.


A terrestrial, evergreen herb, with creeping main stem bearing upright shoots with markedly flat branches . Main stem creeping on the ground or through the moss or litter layer, rooting at distant intervals, up to more than 1 m long and about 1-3 mm in diameter excluding the leaves; erect shoots distant at about 8 cm, usually 5-15(-40) cm long and 1.5-3.5 mm in diameter (including leaves), repeatedly branched with a usually distinct main axis, forming flabellate branch-systems; branches flat in cross-section, narrowly blade-like, 2.5-10 cm × 1.8-4 mm, green above, pale below. Leaves appressed, distant; lamina linear to narrowly lanceolate, 1.4-4 mm × 0.5-1.2 mm, base decurrent, apex acute to shortly subulate, yellow-green; leaves of the branches trimorphic, scale-like, decussate, adnate to the stem more than half their length, clearly in 4 rows (dorsal, ventral and two lateral); blade of the dorsal leaves appressed, linear-lanceolate, free portion of laminas 0.7-2 mm × 0.5-1.2 mm; blade of the lateral leaves appressed, 2.6-7.3 mm × 0.8-2.1 mm, apex triangular, often curved; blade of ventral leaves weakly developed, appressed, narrowly triangular, 0.7-1.5 mm × 0.4-0.9 mm. Strobili laterally on branches near the top of the shoot axis, 1-3(-4) on 1-2 sparsely leaved, dichotomously branched peduncles, erect, cylindrical, 2.5-50 mm × 2-3 mm, apex obtuse without sterile tip; sporophylls appressed, imbricate, broadly triangular to nearly cordate, 2-3 mm × 2-2.4 mm, margins scarious, often slightly dentate, apex shortly acuminate. Sporangium reniform, 1 mm × 1.5 mm. Spores globose, trilete, 30-38 μm in diameter, reticulate.

Growth and development

The subterranean gametophyte of L. complanatum lives saprohytic in close symbiosis with a mycorrhizal fungus. It is carrot-shaped, without paraphyses. It may take some years before the sporophyte develops.

Other botanical information

The Lycopodiaceae do not have close affinities with 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. complanatum is the type species of the section Complanata Victorin (synonym: Diphasiastrum Holub), which section is also often considered as the separate genus Diphasiastrum Holub. In South-East Asia, a few more species of this section are found such as L. platyrhizoma J.H. Wilce (Sumatra, Toba) and L. wightianum Wallich ex Grev. & Hook. (Java, 2500-3250 m altitude).


In South-East Asia and other tropical regions, L. complanatum occupies exposed or sheltered slopes in upper montane forest or mixed alpine forest, usually at 1000-3200 m altitude; in temperate regions it occurs in the half shade of trees and heather, from sea-level up to 1000 m altitude. It prefers well aerated, humus-rich, acidic soils. In Indonesia on Java it occurs in exposed, dry, stony locations, on mountain (hollow) roadsides and in old volcano craters at 1400-3100 m altitude.

Propagation and planting

L. complanatum generally produces abundant spores but plants are difficult to grow from spores. Propagation by layering of growing tips is easier and faster. When grown from spores they are best sown as soon as they are mature on the surface of a humus-rich sterilized soil. To keep the compost moist, a polythene bag can be put over the pot. Small clumps of plantlets can be transplanted into other pots as soon as they are large enough to handle; they should be kept humid until they are well established. The plants can be planted outside when they are at least 2 years old and only in very sheltered locations.


L. complanatum thrives in a rough spongy peat in the shade and requires a humid atmosphere. The plants are difficult to establish. The roots are delicate and liable to rot, most water being absorbed through the foliage. L. complanatum has an aromatic resinous smell which makes it unpalatable and unattractive for deer.

Genetic resources and breeding

Germplasm collections and breeding programmes are not known to exist for L. complanatum . Worldwide it is not directly threatened with extinction but its population is declining due to overcollecting, air pollution and habitat destruction.


L. complanatum is a cold-temperate species and limited to a few alpine regions in South-East Asia. Cultivation would only be successful in high mountainous areas. The alkaloid constituents may be of pharmacological importance and deserve further research.


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  • Tsai, J.L. & Shieh, W.C., 1994. Lycopodiaceae. In: Huang, T.C. et al. (Editors): Flora of Taiwan. 2nd Edition. Vol. 1. Editorial Committee of the Flora of Taiwan, Department of Botany, National Taiwan University, Taipei, Taiwan. pp. 29-44.
  • Wagner, W.H. & Beitel, J.M., 1993. Lycopodiaceae. In: Flora of North America Editorial Committee (Editors): Flora of North America. Vol. 2. Pteridophytes and gymnosperms. Oxford University Press, New York, United States. pp. 18-37.


T. Boonkerd