Lichens: Reindeer Moss (Cladina rangiferina, formerly Cladonia rangiferina)
Iceland Moss (Cetraria islandica)
Other Names: Caribou moss, reindeer lichen (Cladina rangiferina)
Habitat and Range: Reindeer and Iceland moss flourish in open areas, blogs, tundra, and forests from Alaska to northern California. They are most common in the colder sections of our region. Common areas are in gravel bars, dry slopes, tundra, and dry rocky places.
Physical Description: Reindeer Moss: Cladina rangiferina: a: 1 to 4 inches high; b: Body of lichen (thallus) forms hollow branches. Branches are extremely pale greenish–gray, with a branching pattern mostly in fours. Very brittle when dry, resilient wet; c: Reindeer moss colonies are often extensive.
Physical Description: Iceland Moss: Cetraria islandica: a: 1/2 to 2 inches high; e: body of lichen (thallus)is light brown-gray with erect, flattish branches and curled edges.
Harvest Calendar: All year, for emergency use. Spring and autumn, for medicinal use. Reindeer moss is actually a lichen; its common name stems from its hollow branches that resemble reindeer antlers. Iceland moss has branches that are flattened rather than hollow.
MEDICINAL USE: Smith, in “Arctic Pharmagcognosia,” writes that an Aleut informant reported using reindeer moss tea for chest pains, and that native hunters “…who are climbing hills eat it in order to maintain their wind.” Dena’ina Athabascans, says Kari boils and eat Cladina “…to stop diarrhea. They also drink the juice that is left. Since the eighteenth century, herbalists have prescribed Iceland moss the the treatment of chest ailments, digestive upset, and tuberculosis. The Complete Book of Health Plants specifies that Cetraria “…contains the carbohydrate complexes lichenin and isolichenin, and the bitter principle cetrarin. For bronchial catarrh, an infusion of the lichen can used, or lozenges prepared by combining the lichen mucilage with gum arabic, sugar and flavoring.” Today, science has verified that many lichen species contains acids that exhibit significant antibiotic activity. According to Christopher Hobb in Herbal Antibiotic: Usnea, World War II researchers discovered that more than half of the lichen species tested contained compounds effective “…against gram positive bacteria, such as Streptococcus, Staphyloccus and Pneumonococcus.”
CAUTION: Lichens must be leached or parboiled in changes of water before consumption to remove the irritating acids. Since lichens absorb contaminants from the atmosphere, they could be dangerous to consume in a polluted region. It has been found that radioactive materials from nuclear atmospheric testing concentrate in lichen tissues. Biologist Jane Middleton reports that “in the 1960’s, natives of Anaktuvuk Pass, in the Brooks Range, had a high level of Strontium 90 in their bodies. It came from eating caribou that had been feeding on lichens which had absorbed the radioactive substance after some nuclear testing.