Selaginella 101: Spikemoss Explained (& Varieties to Know)

For something that sounds more like an exotic herbal remedy than a plant for your home, Selaginella is perhaps one of the biggest family of plants you’ve never heard of – or at the very least, fully understood.

Which is not a surprise really, considering Selaginella has been having an ongoing identity crisis for a long while now. With the characteristics (and often names) of mosses and ferns, this genus has landed squarely in the “not sure where to place this” category.

Honestly, it’s such a shame. Many of the 750 strong Selaginella species have the makings of fantastic terrarium plants (and houseplants to a lesser extent).

In this article we’ll be clearing up all the confusion around Selaginella, recommending the best Selaginella varieties for your homes and projects, and helping you take care of them.

Selaginella

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What is Selaginella? (Is it a Moss, a Fern… Or Neither)

Honestly, Selaginella classification is a bit of a jumble.

It’s not a moss, yet its common family names are “Spikemoss” and “Clubmoss”… It’s not a fern, and yet many of its varieties are labelled as such… Which is unhelpful to say the least.

The truth is, it carries characteristics of both, but it’s from a distinct and ancient lineage of vascular plants in the Selaginellaceae family.

Selaginella plants are really only unique to themselves, which is why people have a hard time communicating what they are properly. I guess it’s easier to name (and sell) things that people can identify with.

Though they vary considerably in size and shape, they do tend to have some consistent qualities.

Common Selaginella characteristics include:

  • Either a creeping, mat-forming growth (like a moss) or an upright branching growth (like a fern).
  • Small, scaly leaves on branching stems.
  • Spore producing leaves.

Selaginella Varieties

What makes Selaginella such a great family of terrarium plants is an almost universal love of moisture and humidity. Though the genus is found in both tropical and temperature regions, the vast majority are going to love closed terrarium life.

On the flip side, there are some Selaginella species/cultivars that can grow comfortably in the home, but that list is much smaller. Most species are going to need significant humidity to thrive, so pebble trays can really help to keep that up.

Overall, despite the hundreds of reported Selaginella varieties – in terms of what’s actually available to find/buy online – there’s only really a handful of species to note.

#1: Selaginella kraussiana (Golden Clubmoss, Spikemoss)

Selaginella kraussiana is the most well known species in the family, and it has a great standing in the terrarium community.

Loved for its easy growth and lush mossy appearance, it has become a staple ground-cover choice in tropical terrariums. It’s growth pattern can be unpredictable, but it’s great for adding that “wild” element to a terrarium.

It’s also one of the species that functions as a houseplant, provided you can keep up with its watering…

Selaginella kraussiana
Selaginella kraussiana up close.

#2: Selaginella uncinata (Peacock Spikemoss/Peacock Fern)

It’s clear why this iridescent stunner of a plant goes by the name of Peacock Spikemoss.

Coming in a wide variety of blues, purples and greens, this gorgeous plant has more of a vining nature than the others, but it will still form a pretty dense mat as it weaves around.

I have seen this grown in pots, but it definitely appreciates the extra humidity of a terrarium.

Selaginella uncinata
Such colours!

#3: Selaginella martensii (Martens’s Spike Moss)

One of the true low light terrarium plants, Selaginella martensii tends to grow in a more controlled fashion. Growing upright with broad overlapping leaves, it’s one that resembles a fern much more than a moss.

It’s well known for it ‘Jori‘ variety, which is also often called ‘Frosty’ for its characteristic white tips.

Though, despite its festive looks, it’s very much a tropical species.

The ‘Jori’ variety looking festive as ever.

#4: Selaginella emmeliana

Similar to S. martensii, Selaginella emmeliana has a more feather-like shape to it’s growth and exhibits a little more separation between branches.

It’s great for areas of a terrarium that are begging for a compact fern, but can’t really fit one.

Feathered foliage of Selaginella emmeliana.
Feathered foliage of Selaginella emmeliana.

#5: Selaginella braunii (Braun’s Arborvitae Fern)

To me, Selaginella braunii has the most classic fern feeling.

Where many Selaginella species will only grow an inch or two high, braunii can actually grow quite large. Definitely one for larger terrariums.

Personally, I think it looks like a miniature Rabbit’s Foot Fern with it’s arrow shaped “fronds.”

Frond-like foliage of Selaginella braunii
Frond-like foliage of Selaginella braunii

#Bonus: Selaginella lepidophylla (The Resurrection Plant)

This one is not like the others. If you want a Selaginella that’s definitely able to survive without humidity – this is it.

Famously known as “The Resurrection Plant”, this species of Selaginella is a desert dwelling plant that’s able to go without water for incredible amounts of time.

It’ll literally dry up into a ball of fiber, which can be miraculously “resurrected” once it’s watered.

Selaginella lepidophylla
Selaginella lepidophylla looking surprisingly fresh.

Other Noteworthy Varieties

These Selaginella are available online, but are generally more rarer and more difficult to source.

  • Selaginella plana
  • Selaginella apoda
  • Selaginella willdenowii
  • Selaginella picta
  • Selaginella mollis
  • Selaginella erythropus
  • Selaginella peruviana
  • Selaginella serpens
  • Selaginella pallescens
  • Selaginella griffithii

Selaginella Varieties

Light

As expected from a family of plants found on forest floors, Selaginella are known for their great low light tolerance.

In fact, they do best in areas of indirect light, as harsh direct light can quickly dry them out. So they’ll do great paired with most other tropical terrarium species.

Watering and Humidity

Other than the crazy exception that is “The Resurrection Plant”, Selaginella on a whole need consistently high moisture and humidity.

Honestly, the fastest way to kill a Selaginella plant is to let it dry out. Which is why closed terrarium conditions are the best solution.

Substrate

Despite being a moisture-loving genus of plants, that doesn’t mean Selaginella are going to be happy sitting in water.

Much like ferns, they’ll do best in a substrate that can retain lots of moisture, but also has good drainage. See our substrate guide for more tips, or check out our Essential Guide for Tropical Terrariums to see our signature recommended mix.

Propagation

Despite sitting somewhere between a fern and moss, Selaginella tends to favour the ferns touch when it comes to propagation.

You can propagate Selaginella either through division (separating a healthy plant at the roots into multiple individuals) or they also propagate from rooted stem cuttings.

Technically they are a spore producing plant too (much like a fern), but spore propagation is a needlessly challenging process when cuttings are a viable option.

Over to You

Are you going to be picking up a Selaginella for your next project or home? Or is there a variety that I’ve missed that people need to know about?

Let us know in the comments.

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