I'm certain that many of us during our lifetime have been informed that reindeer moss is really not a moss, and reindeer moss should be properly called reindeer lichen.
The name “lichen” is much simpler than explaining what it really is. In simplest terms, lichens are any of various small plants composed of a particular fungus and a particular alga growing in an intimate symbiotic association and forming dual plants.
We have two local species that often grow side-by-side on sandy soil in open pine woods and along roadsides. In order to avoid the blasphemy of too much biological detail, it is not necessary to quote the scientific names of our two common reindeer lichen species. By holding up our two species together in bright sunshine, one may distinguish a lichen with an ashy gray color from the pale yellowish gray of the other lichen.
These lichens are the chief food for reindeer and caribou of Arctic and north temperate regions. Model train enthusiasts and miniature landscape designers use this lichen as imitation shrubbery.
There is no doubt in my mind that reindeer moss shall continue to be called reindeer moss, if for no other reason than historical precedent.
Copyright © 2003 William T. Hathaway.