Reindeer moss is a lichen (not an actual moss, despite its name) that is part of the Cladoniaceae family. The scientific name for reindeer moss is Cladonia rangiferina. Reindeer moss, which is also known as caribou moss, is cultivated in northern and arctic regions all over the planet, particular in alpine tundras. As the name indicates, the slow-growing lichen is a vital food for reindeer and caribou.
Reindeer moss tend to grow no taller than 7 inches in height. The lichen creates colonies (which appear similar to pillows) of branching and dense ground cover. There are no leaves on reindeer lichens. Reindeer moss have hollow stems that branch out in pairs. The lichen bears fruit, which has wind-dispersed spores.
Caribou and Reindeer
Animals such as caribou and reindeer feed on these lichens during times of extreme cold weather. In those times, the sturdy reindeer moss is one of the few food sources still around. Most creatures are unable to eat reindeer moss, but these animals have microorganisms within their bodies that enable them to digest lichens. The lichen has an abundance of carbohydrates that give the animals sufficient energy to generate body heat.
The lichens, which are rich in vitamins A and B, are commercially cultivated in Scandinavian nations to produce a powder that thickens desserts and soups. The Dena'ina native peoples of Alaska boil reindeer moss until it becomes soft, and then use it in many of their foods. They also use the lichen to produce a tea that can soothe upset stomachs.
Reindeer moss is found on the ground of low-alpine areas and boreal pine forests. It can appear in many different types of habitats. The wide-ranging lichen is cultivated from Nova Scotia in Canada all the way to Texas, Florida, Illinois and Missouri in the U.S.
Reindeer moss does not require a lot of water to survive. The same applies for all types of lichens. In times of little or no water at all, reindeer moss dries out and goes entirely dormant. They can easily start growing again even after extended periods of being dormant.