When it comes to wild edibles, sometimes you’re able to find an interesting and tasty item able to enhance a special dish, or serve as a pleasant snack when out on the trail.
And then other times, you just need to be sure you’re eating something non-poisonous if only to fill your belly, no matter how strange it is.
On the totem pole of wild foods, moss, lichen, and other creeping plants are usually near the bottom.
But as it turns out, some of these shade-loving plants are actually edible, though not all. There are types of moss that are edible. But how about reindeer moss? Is reindeer moss edible?
Yes, reindeer moss is edible. It’s mostly carbs, and has some vitamins, but it is not a source of well-rounded nutrition and should be boiled to prevent serious cramps and nausea.
If you’re in a legit survival situation, or if you really want to get experimental with your next wild-foraged ingredient, reindeer moss might be just the thing.
However, this isn’t something you should just chow down on with reckless abandon. Keep reading and I’ll tell you what you need to know about safely eating reindeer moss…
Reindeer Moss Isn’t Really Moss
Contrary to what its name suggests, reindeer moss, or Cladonia rangiferina, isn’t a moss at all. It’s actually a lichen.
What’s the difference? Mosses are plants, lichens aren’t: lichens are unique. Lichens are a kind of conglomerate organism, for lack of a better word, consisting of algae or some kinds of bacteria living among thin strands of fungus.
This is a classic symbiotic relationship, one that can survive in harsh environments, from scorching heat to deep cold. Lichens don’t have roots, stems, or leaves like mosses do.
Instead, they form a crust-like growth. This is what gives reindeer moss its crunchy texture, but more on that in a minute.
So any way, though it is called reindeer (or caribou) moss, it really is nothing like true moss.
Do Reindeer Really Eat Reindeer Moss?
Yes, reindeer do indeed eat reindeer moss, which is how this lichen got its common name. The stuff forms a crucial part of their diet, especially during winter months when other food sources are scarce or non-existent.
Common in arctic regions where reindeer roam, reindeer moss is hardy and can survive under the snow and in intense, prolonged cold, providing a vital food source for reindeer throughout the year.
It’s also high in carbohydrates (thought low in protein) and that makes it an excellent energy source for these animals. Reindeer don’t just like it; they literally depend on it for survival in many cases.
Where Is It Found?
Reindeer moss primarily thrives in taiga and tundra biomes, extending as far north as the Arctic Circle.
These regions have intense, cold and long, harsh winters and are the most common place to find this unique lichen.
Despite its preference for cold climates, reindeer moss can occasionally grow in hotter climates, and will still grow well in ideal light conditions. In such cases, it generally likes humid open forests and well-draining, acidic soils.
As long as the conditions are right, reindeer moss can be found in many corners of the world.
Geographically, you can find it growing freely and abundantly around the circumpolar north, covering extensive areas of ground in the Arctic and the Canadian boreal forest.
It can also be found on mountainous terrain all around the world.
In the United States, specifically, this type of moss is not limited to any one region. It grows all the way from Nova Scotia to Florida, throughout the Southwest, and sporadically through the Great Plains and Midwest. In warmer areas, look for it in sandy soil and wooded upland areas.
Can You Eat Reindeer Moss Raw?
Yes, you can eat reindeer moss in its raw form. However, it’s important to note that the texture is crunchy and brittle, and combined with the flavor it certainly won’t be appealing to everyone.
While it’s generally safe to consume raw, the toughness of the moss can make it difficult to chew.
It’s recommended that you soak the moss in water before consumption to soften it and help remove any potential bitterness.
Can You Eat Reindeer Moss Cooked?
Yes. Cooking reindeer moss is a good idea generally and a common practice in some cultures. It’s often made safer and more palatable by boiling for about half an hour, then soaking in several changes of water over time.
This preparation method helps to soften the moss and remove any harsh, ashy taste.
What Does It Taste Like?
It depends on who you ask and where it’s growing… Reindeer moss is usually described as having a bitter or ashy flavor when consumed raw.
Some people describe it as having a slightly mushroomy taste when raw. When cooked, especially when boiled and soaked as described above, the flavor can change slightly, with some noting a subtle sweetness and increased mushroom notes, though most Westerners will still say it is quite bland.
The taste also depends on how it’s prepared in a dish, of course, as it can take on the flavors of the ingredients it’s cooked with.
Reindeer Moss is an Ingredient in Several Cultural Dishes and Drinks
Believe it or not, Reindeer moss has found its way into the culinary repertoires of several cultures…
In Sweden, it’s served as a dish unto itself that complements the local cuisine. In Denmark, it’s used as an ingredient in a traditional breakfast porridge called Ollebrod.
In Norway, reindeer moss is often paired with juniper as an ingredient in aquavit, a liquor of some popularity around Europe.
Though almost totally unknown as a kitchen ingredient in the US, the same cannot be said for Europe!
How Should You Prepare Reindeer Moss?
Preparing reindeer moss for consumption properly involves a few steps to make it more palatable. Firstly, it should be thoroughly cleaned to remove any dirt or debris.
After cleaning, it’s recommended to soak the moss in water for a few hours, if possible, but any amount of soaking will help soften it. This will also help to reduce its natural bitterness.
For cooking, try to boil the moss for about 30 minutes to further soften it and improve the texture. It can then be drained and rinsed again before being added to your dish or eaten as-is.
Are There Any Risks or Hazards Associated with Eating It?
Possibly. While reindeer moss is generally safe to eat, there are a few considerations to keep in mind…
Like any wild edible, it’s crucial to positively identify it before consumption to avoid accidentally ingesting a genuinely harmful plant. Even if you’re forced to eat it raw and fresh picked, try to rinse it if you can to reduce the likelihood of ingesting harmful bacteria.
Also know that even though this type of moss isn’t toxic, it can cause serious stomach cramps if not adequately soaked or boiled before eating.
This is because the moss is quite tough and acidic, and can be difficult to digest. Boiling it not only makes it easier to eat and tastier but also helps to mitigate the risk of digestive discomfort.
As always, if you’re new to foraging or eating wild edibles, it’s best to start with small quantities to see how your body reacts.
Tom Marlowe practically grew up with a gun in his hand, and has held all kinds of jobs in the gun industry: range safety, sales, instruction and consulting, Tom has the experience to help civilian shooters figure out what will work best for them.