What Is Reindeer Moss?
Reindeer moss is a species of lichen so called because it is the staple winter food of reindeer (and caribou) in Arctic and sub-Arctic regions. Cladonia rangiferina, also known as reindeer lichen, is light-colored, fruticose lichen belonging to the Cladoniaceae family. Other common names include reindeer moss and caribou moss, but these names may be misleading since it is not a moss.
A similar-looking species also known by the common name Reindeer lichen is Cladonia portentosa. The animals reach the plant by scraping away the snow with their feet. But plant growth in those cold northern lands is so slow that the lichen can take more than 30 years to recover after the reindeer have grazed.
These domesticated herds therefore have to travel long distances in search of food, and the Laplanders of northern Scandinavia, who depend on the animals for their livelihood, must travel with them. Fortunately, reindeer moss is especially abundant in Lapland, although it also grows extensively in much of northern Europe, the tundra (or treeless plains) of Siberia and the barren expanses of Arctic America.
During the short summer the reindeer are able to feed on herbage and shoots then accessible in the valleys. These versatile animals provide the Laplanders with meat, milk, cheese and the raw materials for clothing, shoes and tents.
They are also a means of transport. Reindeer moss is sometimes eaten by human beings, after being powdered and mixed with other food. But it leaves a slightly burning sensation on the human palate. This bluish-gray plant grows erect in tufts, and is remarkable for its many branches, which, strangely, resemble a deer’s antlers.
In Scandinavia it has been used in the manufacture of alcohol, but difficulties in obtaining reindeer moss arise because of its slow growth rate (3 to 5 mm per year). Its periods of most rapid growth are spring and fall when high humidity and cool temperatures prevail.