Every fall after school starts, my mother and grandmother would dig out their old burlap bags and feed bags. They would take the piles of bailing twine that was cut from the bails and cut them to lengths. These were laid out straight and then when there were 25 strands, my mother would time them together so they wouldn’t become tangled. With fall came the time to begin to harvest princess pine.
Growing up in Upstate New York, we learned young what can be done to make some extra money. Extra money to help get through the winter months by paying the extra heating bills, buying winter clothes and boots, and just in general to survive the long cold months ahead. I grew up in a family of stone cutters. In the winter months, it was difficult to cut stone. Heavy snows made it hard to get to the quarries, and ice and snow on the blocks had to be cleared on almost a daily basis. So having some way to make extra money was a necessity.
For about a month or more, my mother and grandmother would go up in the mountains and pick a plant that grows in shady areas. Princess pine is a member of the ferns. It is soft to the touch and has sturdy stems and roots. Picking princess pine meant that you had to pick root and all. Without the root, the plant will not survive the weeks until after Christmas.
Princess pine, or Lycopodium clavatum, is found all over the world. It is however confined to places where the ground has been undisturbed. It is now considered an endangered plant as many farmers till up land and builders cut down trees to build more homes and more businesses. It is part of the club moss family and other members of this family closely related to it are stagshorn club moss, running pine, running moss, and many other combinations. Princess pine is sometimes confused with princess pine tree, although they are completely different, the names are the same, and both are used in decorations in and around the home.
In early photography, the spores from this plant were used as flash powder, as they are explosive in the air in high enough of densities. This also has helped in its reduction of availability, although in a small part.
When picking princess pine, we worked only on the plants that stood upright. Some of the varieties of this plant crawled or run along the ground. Although they are members of the same plant and run under the same names, the plants we harvested were upright, medium to dark green, and shinny in color. Princess pine is found out in the woods on hill sides where the grass is sparse, but there is an abundance of leaves and pine needles on the ground, keeping the soil underneath moist and often black from the amount of composted material from years and years of dead leaves.
My mother and grandmother would pick every day that it didn’t rain, from the beginning of October until the snows fell or until hunting season began. On weekends, the youngest of my three older bothers and I would join them. Packing a lunch and something to drink was always a must, but it had to be something light, as at times we would walk miles into the woods to harvest the soft sturdy plants.
Picking princess pine took patience and it was time consuming. Each plant had to be free of dead leaves and shaken to loosen any dirt on the roots. Roots had to be long enough to stick out below your hand. Any spores on the tops of these were picked off and left in the dirt where the plant came from. If a plant was not bushy, we would leave it and let it grow bigger next year. Each handful had to be packed tightly, to ensure that when you tied it into a bundle, it did not spring back and become loose. When I was younger, my mother would take each of my handfuls and tie them up with hers, as my handful wasn’t big enough. When I got older, I was able to make a bundle myself and soon learned how to tie them tightly and so that the string did not come undone.
These bundles would be placed in burlap sacks or feed sacks and packed tightly, but not so heavy that it would damage the plants. Then later when it was getting closer to dark, we would tie the sacks together and pull them across the ground to where we left the car parked. Rarely were any of us kids allowed to go when they took the princess pine in to be sold. The car was usually packed full, trunk and back seat both. Princess pine was sold by the pound, and for each bag that we brought in, another bag was given back to us in place of it.
Princess pine is used in making wreaths, ropes for decorating, and on many indoor and outdoor decorations and centerpieces. I was able to watch one time when I was there the way that ropes were made. They were made by stitching the stems into a rope with a heavy duty sewing machine with strong thick thread. First one piece was laid side by side with another, then after a few stitches, one or two more were added, and then sewed a couple of more inches, them adding one or two more pieces, making strong full ropes of different lengths, some as much as 100 feet long. It did not look like easy work. As far as making wreaths, I have made many of my own before.
Princess pine is sturdy and if it becomes dry, you can spritz it with water or if it is a wreath, you can set it in a little water in the sink and let it soak some up, let excess drip off, and replace it on the door. Being durable made it the most sought after type of wreath or rope, as with those made of pine boughs would loose their needles, and there is no repair for that.
As with most other types of harvesting, you do not make a lot of money. The most that I can remember my mother getting for princess pine was seventy-five cents a pound. Money made from harvesting is money well earned. It takes many hours and lots of hard work to pick and process princess pine.