Reindeer Lichen

Where I’m from in Ohio, lichen grows on trees and rocks, sure, but you don’t commonly see mounds of seafoam-colored lichen growing directly on the ground. What is this stuff?

It’s reindeer lichen, a common ground cover in boreal forests. (Note, though, that there are two related lichen species – Cladonia rangiferina and Cladonia portentosa – that look very similar and both go by the common name “reindeer lichen,” and I’ve no idea which this is.) Here it can often be found growing on slopes along the sides of trails and roads.

Its name comes from the fact that in tundra ecosystems it’s actually an important food source for reindeer (aka caribou). I don’t envy them. I like looking at lichen, but I’m not sure I’d want to make a meal out of it.

Just another reminder of how different the North Woods is from anywhere I’ve lived before.

UPDATE: Be sure to read the comments below. Apparently reindeer lichen can in fact be found far to the south of the boreal zone. I had no idea!

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12 thoughts on “Reindeer Lichen”

  1. Cladonia rangiferina grows down here in the Piedmont in Georgia. I some places they form carpets. I just noticed them perking up again after the long, dry summer.
    There is also another species, Cladonia subtenuis (Dixie Reindeer lichen) which is a pale green compared with the ash-colored Cladonia rangiferina.

  2. Joan and RK – wow, I’m surprised to learn it ranges so far south! I definitely thought of it as a boreal thing. I wonder if I just wasn’t very observant when I lived in Ohio, or if there’s some habitat requirement that wasn’t met where I lived, because I don’t remember ever seeing it there.

  3. It grows down in the Ozarks too, where my family is from. its all over the hills and in some places quite thick. According to my well-worn copy of Wild Edibles of Missouri by Jan Phillips, Cladonia rangiferina is edible, used in soups, as flour, or in jelly. She suggests drying, cutting off the dirty bottom bits, crushing it, and using it to replace 1/2 cup of flour in chocolate chip cookies, or adding it into biscuits or muffins. but, she warns that the soup is horrid and for survival-eating only, and warns that most lichens are purgative, so be careful, and importantly, that it is easy to over-harvest and eradicate from an area.

    and, no, i’ve not tried it yet.

  4. It grows here in Southeastern Massachusetts and Cape Cod, too.

    And guess what? It is in fact, edible. I used to teach an edible plants class to elementary students. We would end the class by eating chips dipped in reindeer lichen dip and drinking wintergreen “tea.”

  5. Rebecca, I found your wonderful blog, while trying to ID a reindeer lichen I found in south east Ohio. I live in Athens County Ohio, and I am happy to report that there is some type of reindeer lichen growing on the ridge slopes here. I do a lot of hiking in the woods, and do not see reindeer lichen often, but it is there in a few recovering micro-climates. I most often find this lichen growing near fan clubmoss (Diphasiastrum digitatum), and other mosses, on steep slopes near the ridge tops….

    1. Yes, as you can see from the other comments I definitely learned from this post that there is reindeer lichen (or at least, some other similar-looking fructicose lichen) growing way south of where I’d assumed. Athens County is beautiful, I’m envious!

  6. I’ve been obsessively browsing the Internet trying to identify something I found today in Tuscaloosa, AL and this is the only place I found what I think I have. It grows in little mounds… like tiny bonsai bushes barely clinging to soil and rock. I have pictures I can share if anyone is interested. For now I’m just going to assume that Reindeer Lichen is what I have. Thanks for the post!

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