Reindeer moss is neither plant nor animal. It’s a fungus! This fungus is essential for a reindeer‘s survival, growing in both hot and cold climates in open, well-drained environments. There are many things that make this lichen species unique, so read on and learn all about reindeer moss!
About Reindeer Moss
Reindeer moss, reindeer lichen, and caribou moss are common names for Cladonia rangiferina, a lichen of the Cladoniaceae family. This lichen is only moss in appearance: it looks like something in between fungi and algae. You can recognize it by its unique form — it branches in a way that resembles reindeer antlers!
This lichen grows very slowly — up to half an inch per year — until it reaches a maximum height of 4 inches. It commonly forms mats covering large extensions in boreal forests, but it can also grow in hot climates. This fungus is called reindeer moss because it represents an essential part of a reindeer’s diet. They eat this lichen throughout the year, except when snow covers the ground, forcing them to look for different sources of nutrition.
Reindeer moss is not necessarily toxic, but its high acidic levels mean that humans will experience severe discomfort after eating it — stomach cramps and nausea are the most common symptoms. If you want to eat reindeer lichen, you must remove some of its acids by boiling it in water with hardwood ashes or baking soda, changing the water every so often.
Why Do Reindeer Eat This Lichen?
Reindeers are herbivores that will travel up to a thousand miles each year in search of food. Reindeer moss provides all the nutrients a reindeer needs to survive in the wild while constantly making long journeys and escaping predators.
In addition, it is a very carbohydrate-heavy food, which is why large herds of deer rely on them to survive the winter months. The downside is that lichen is not truly satiating, so reindeer have to eat up to 11 pounds of it per day. However, since lichens cover an estimated six percent of the earth’s surface, it is not likely to disappear soon!
Apart from various lichens, reindeer will eat tree leaves, fresh grass, herbs, moss, and mushrooms.
Where Does Reindeer Moss Grow?
Although it can occasionally grow in hot climates, reindeer moss usually thrives around the Arctic Circle in areas where other vegetation types might not survive. It is vastly common in Canadian boreal forests and the Scandinavian tundra. It may also inhabit the heaths and moors of the UK.
This lichen prefers humid open forests and well-draining, acid soils. It is one of the most cold-hardy organisms in the world and can survive thousands of years on air moisture alone.
What Can Reindeer Moss Be Used For?
Reindeer moss has had many uses throughout history. In this section, we will cover some of the most famous uses!
Natives have used this lichen in cuisine for centuries, either eating it raw or adding it to a prepared dish. Some conventional dishes made with reindeer moss are:
- Bread and scones
- Soups and stews
- Sauces and syrup
- Pudding and jelly
Lichen serves as a thickener in soups and puddings. Some people report raw reindeer moss has a bitter taste that resembles mushrooms or even aspirin, but it makes a good addition thanks to its fragrant scent. Curiously, it was also the key ingredient of a very popular Swedish alcoholic beverage in the 19th Century. The lichen was used as an alternative to grain, proving this organism’s versatility in cuisine.
In the past, people used reindeer moss as an ornament to decorate living spaces and gardens. Today, it is becoming increasingly popular in interior design through organic furnishings that make use of the lichen’s appearance and its recently discovered noise-absorbing properties.
Moreover, reindeer moss, like many other lichens, has been used as a cloth dye since medieval times, thanks to its acids. Today, you can make your own dyes with it if you follow the proper steps!
Reindeer moss could save your life if you find yourself stranded in the Arctic: it can provide warmth, shelter, and nourishment.
Natives in Scandinavia have used reindeer lichen as a filling for their huts and bedding, as it provides some insulation from the cold — dozens of bird species use it to build their nests. You could also use it to make a small fire since it burns well in conjunction with other materials.
Lastly, you can eat it raw if you ever need to, but only as a last resort since it could induce severe stomach issues. It’s safest when boiled in water several times before eating. If possible, add wood ashes to the water.
- What Do Reindeer Eat? 7 Important Foods for Their Diet
- Deer Antler Velvet: What Is It and What Are the Benefits?
- Reindeer in the Arctic: How Do They Survive?
The photo featured at the top of this post is © Andrej Safaric/Shutterstock.com
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- Eat the Weeds, Available here: https://www.eattheweeds.com/edible-cladonia-whats-not-to-lichen-2/
- Original Outdoors, Available here: https://originaloutdoors.co.uk/bushcraft-general/reindeer-moss-food-uses/
- Britannica, Available here: https://www.britannica.com/science/reindeer-lichen
- Nordgrona, Available here: https://nordgrona.com/reindeer-moss