Column: A Selaginella surprise: Finding an ancient plant by Justin Smith Morrill’s ice pond

  • Selaginella apoda. (Micki Colbeck photograph) Micki Colbeck photographs

  • The ice pond at the Justin Smith Morrill Homestead. (Micki Colbeck photograph)

  • The Justin Smith Morrill Homestead. (Micki Colbeck photograph) Micki Colbeck photograph

  • The Justin Smith Morrill Homestead. (Micki Colbeck photograph) Micki Colbeck photograph

  • Micki Colbeck. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to

For the Valley News
Published: 12/7/2021 9:59:26 AM
Modified: 12/7/2021 9:58:58 AM

It’s a late fall morning and the dogs and I head out for a hike. Rays of sunshine are coming through the clouds and the air is crisp. Who knows how long before cold rains come?

Vermont is rich with places to hike, but the girls and I tend to stay close to home, searching for subtle beauty over mountaintop views. We have found a new trail marked in pink ribbons that a neighbor has made, branching off a path we have hiked so many times we could do a species play-by-play. It meanders into an old rich upland forest of beech, maple and ash, shading rattlesnake ferns and the promise of spring wildflowers, following paths moose, bear, deer and fox still walk. My neighbor calls it the Upper Pass Trail.

Always on the lookout for spore-producing plants like ferns and mosses, I stumble upon a fern I had seen only once before in this valley — Goldie’s wood-fern — which looks like a cross between a Christmas fern (so called because it stays green all winter and was used for holiday decorations) and a lady fern, so common in these woods. Botanizing off-season is easier for those of us who love mosses and ferns, as many of them will photosynthesize on any sunny day, no matter how cold. We are out in the woods with hand lenses in December while our flower-loving friends sit by the stove awaiting the warm days of pollination.

Surprises, like finding a new fern, happen almost every time we head out. It is as if nature gives little gifts, saying, “Hey, come back and see us again, OK?” One of the biggest surprises was finding an uncommon and ancient plant growing on the rocks around Justin Smith Morrill’s ice pond, Selaginella apoda.

Strafford folks are blessed with living near a most beautiful collection of buildings and gardens, the sandstone-colored Gothic Revival house and barns — a combination of gingerbread and heavenly spires designed and built by Justin Smith Morrill, a local Strafford boy who taught himself architecture by reading books. I have long loved this property and, like all Strafford residents, know about Morrill’s achievements, including the Land Grant College Act, which directed each state to set aside land (admittedly taken from Indigenous peoples) for agricultural colleges — practical education for working-class families.

We also have been versed in Morrill’s dedication to the beautification of our nation’s capital and its buildings, and to his opposition to slavery, and that he represented Vermont in the House and then the Senate for more than four decades until his death in 1898. I wondered what he would think about finding a somewhat rare plant at his pond and if his love of gardening would have included the botany of wild plants.

Morrill was a Renaissance man, a self-made man whose family could not afford to send him to the city for university. He learned by reading and by discussions with others, and from his experience as a shopkeeper and de facto banker. His mentor, Judge Jedediah Hyde Harris, guided young Morrill throughout. He became passionate about art, architecture, horticulture and, above all, of education. His gardens are a mix of formal flower gardens in the front and a large kitchen garden of edibles in the back. He was interested in cold tolerance in plants and saw the gardens as more of a horticultural experiment rather than a working farm. His house and gardens reflect Andrew Jackson Downing’s books on the Old English or Rural Gothic style, with their pointed arches and stalactite drips.

I like to imagine he would have been most interested in finding a tiny and ancient plant creeping along the boulders that surround the deep dark cold-water pond he designed to supply water and ice. Oddly, he was not in favor of a women’s right to vote, so perhaps he would have restrained from crawling around on the ground with me looking through hand lenses.

Somewhat related to Lycopodium — the club mosses — Selaginella or spike mosses grow mostly in the tropics, or if in the temperate zone, at low elevations. Strafford is neither. It is however home to an abundant colony of these tiny yellow-green vine-like plants. I asked a friend who is an expert on Selaginella if it was truly rare in this part of Vermont or if people who noticed it were rare. He thought it was some of both. I suspect Morrill might have been one of those rare people to notice things. I hope so.

Micki Colbeck, of Strafford, is an artist, a conservation biologist and a member of the Strafford Conservation Commission. Write to her at

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