Diphasiastrum complanatum (Northern Groundcedar)

Plant Info
Also known as: Northern Running-pine, Flat-stemmed Clubmoss
Family:Lycopodiaceae (Clubmoss)
Life cycle:perennial
Habitat:part shade; dry acidic soil; conifer or mixed forest, thickets, rocky slopes, fields
Fruiting season:July - October
Plant height:3 to 16 inches
Wetland Indicator Status:GP: none MW: FACU NCNE: FACU
MN county distribution (click map to enlarge):Minnesota county distribution map
National distribution (click map to enlarge):National distribution map

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Detailed Information

Leaves and stems: Leaf attachment: alternate Leaf attachment: opposite Leaf type: simple

[photo of leaves] Leaves are evergreen, appearing opposite but spirally arranged with 4 evenly spaced leaves in a cycle, appearing as 4 columns when viewed from the side of the stem (4-ranked). Branch leaves are green, somewhat shiny, the base extending down the stem (decurrent) and the free portion at the tip pointed and scale-like. Branches are rectangular in cross-section, flattened on the underside with the associated leaf minute compared to the rest.

[close-up of annual constriction] Lateral leaves are largest, the free portion appressed to the branch or slightly spreading, and the leaf on the upper surface appressed and more narrow. Horizontal stems are above ground or just below the surface of the duff layer. At fairly regular intervals, erect shoots emerge, each with 2 or more branches near the base. Branches are mostly ascending to spreading, forked and tree-like, not strongly arranged on the same plane, fan-like. Each year's new growth is marked by a distinct constriction where the annual bud grew. The erect shoots are 3 to 16 inches tall, though vegetative shoots are typically less than 8 inches.

Spores: Fruit type: spores on stalk

[photo of immature strobili] Spores develop in spike-like or cone-like structures called strobili, usually 1 to 4 strobili (rarely more) clustered at the tip of a long stalk (peduncle). One or 2 peduncles rise up to 3½ inches above the leaves, with appressed, scale-like leaves spiraling up at regular intervals. Strobili are 3/8 to 1¼ inch long, each strobilus also distinctly stalked on forked branches, the stalks and branches more or less about the same length. Each tiny spore sac is attached to a scale (sporophyll) that is about 1/8 inch (to 3mm) long, broadly diamond to heart-shaped and abruptly tapered to a pointed tip. Scales are initially light green and tightly appressed, turning yellowish as they mature and light brown when dry, then become more spreading to release the spores in late summer into fall. The strobili can persist through winter.


Northern Groundcedar is a circumboreal species and occasional in Minnesota's northern forests, often in sandy or rocky soils and usually associated with pines. It is among the species formerly all lumped into Lycopodium (L. complanatum), which many references have now split into several genera and we have followed suit. Distinguishing characteristics of the new groups are: whether spores develop in cone-like strobili or in leaf (or leaf-like) axils, whether strobili are stalked or stalkless, whether horizontal stems are above or below ground, whether branching on erect shoots is tree-like or not, the number of leaves in a spiral cycle, whether leaves are scale-like or not and whether they have a hair-like tip. The Diphasiastrum species all have stalked strobili, tree-like branching, leaves that are scale-like, 4-ranked and lack a hair-like tip. The tree-like branching and scale-like leaves resemble little cedar trees and is why they are commonly called groundcedars.

Northern Groundcedar is distinguished by horizontal stems that are above ground or just below the surface of the duff layer, 1 to 4 strobili (rarely more) on forked stalks at the tip of the stem, branchlets with obvious annual constrictions and rectangular in cross-section, the underside distinctly flattened with the associated leaf much smaller than the others, and upper branches that are not strongly fan-like, the branchlets not consistently all on the same plane (like fingers on a hand). The branch arrangement and branchlet shape can help identify it even when strobili are not present. Most similar is Southern Groundcedar (D. digitatum), which also has flattened branchlets but they lack obvious annual constrictions, its branches are strongly fan-like with branchlets mostly on the same plane, and has 2 to 4 strobili (rarely more) on shorter stalks that are similar in length, appearing nearly whorled at the tip of the peduncle, and strobili tips are often sterile. These two species are known to hybridize and the hybrid is easily confused with either parent.

The other Diphasiastrum species in Minnesota, Blue Groundcedar (D. tristachyum), has horizontal stems 2+ inches below ground, branches are more blue-green and have branchlets that appear more square in cross-section, the leaves on all 4 sides all about the same size. Compare with other clubmosses with cone-like strobili: Spinulum species have stalkless strobili and lack tree-like branching, Lycopodium have stalked strobili but lack tree-like branching, and Dendrolycopodium have tree-like branching but stalkless strobili single at branch tips, and none of these have scale-like leaves. D. tristachyum hybridizes with both of Minnesota's other groundcedars, the hybrid with D. complanatum (D. ×zeilleri) most common and with D. digitatum (D. ×habereri) less so. Descriptive information on all these hybrids is not well documented but intermediate characteristics are likely.

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More photos

Photos by K. Chayka taken in Lake County. Photos by Peter M. Dziuk taken in Cook, Itasca and Lake counties.


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