Reindeer Moss

2016 June 18

On patches of nutrient-poor soil where nothing much else grows, we have extensive areas of this very hardy “plant”. It is Reindeer Moss, Cladonia rangiferina, one of our most cold-hardy types of vegetation.


This particular clump was photographed on November 8, 2015, but honestly it looks about the same any time of year.


I put “plant” in quotes up there because it is actually a lichen – a fungus providing support and structure, in collaboration with an algae that provides food for the combination through photosynthesis. This ends up producing some extremely rugged organisms[1]


The trade-off for toughness is that they grow very slowly, only about 3-5 mm per year. Which is only about half as fast as continents move or human fingernails grow. So, reindeer moss is pretty much restricted to areas where there is little or no competition. Which means that if you have a patch of soil where the only thing growing is reindeer moss, then that particular spot is probably about the last place to consider putting in a garden.

Up in the tundra where nothing much grows other than this, the reindeer do in fact eat it. However, it can take decades for it to grow back after being grazed, which is probably one of the factors that causes reindeer to migrate around all the time rather than staying in one place.

[1]There are even suggestions that certain lichen might even be able to live on Mars, which is pretty extreme considering that there is pretty much no screening of radiation from the Sun, and the atmospheric pressure is so low that water basically goes straight from solid to gas with hardly any time spent as a liquid.

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