There is a plant-like organism commonly found from Canada to Florida. Though slow growing, less than an inch a year, this species is seen in open, woodland areas. The “plant” is actually a lichen called reindeer moss (Cladonia rangiferina). More accurately it is a type of fruticose lichen and can grow up to a half foot in height. Lichens are really two plants in one, consisting of a symbiotic relationship between a fungus and a green alga. The fungus component is usually a member of the Ascomycota, whereas the algal part is a species of unicellular green algae.
Reindeer moss prefers open areas near pine woodlands. It often grows in large colonies, though single clumps can also be found. This lichen is a major part of open, sandy areas surrounded by pitch pines. It is often one of the first colonizers in forest succession and can absorb the needed water and nutrients from the air. It is known for its longevity and can survive for many decades.
During a period of drought the branches of reindeer moss are stiff and easily broken. However this texture becomes much softer after a heavy rainfall. As a fruticose lichen it can reproduce vegetatively by fragmentation. In addition, specialized spores can form which are distributed by the wind.
There are several terrestrial plants which should interest coastal scientists and this is one of them. Reindeers moss often grows in its large colonies on open, sandy areas next to a dune or marsh. Because they alter the soil environment where they grow they make it possible for other plants to colonize the area near the marine environment. They do this by preventing erosion and establishing richer soil when they die and decompose.
Similar to other lichens reindeer moss is an environmental indicator for air quality. Their presence suggests low concentrations of atmospheric pollutants such as sulfur dioxide.
Some habitats near coastal waters are heavily populated with reindeer moss. Small animals find shelter in these spots and some may even feed on the lichen branches. Humans have also used this lichen for food, but only in emergencies.
I have noticed large populations of reindeer moss in the pine woodlands surrounding a marsh. They add stability to the coastline, creating an additional vegetative barrier to protect the upland.
Though small and easily overlooked this common lichen may play an important ecological role in the land leading to the coastline. It’s for that reason that it deserves our attention.
Copyright Gil Newton 2009 Thanks to Chris Dumas for logo image.