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GARY SHAW: The Big Land blanket, caribou moss

Walk on the Wild Side
Walk on the Wild Side - SaltWire Network

It has been said that we sometimes can’t see the forest for the trees when we reference many things in our lives.

There is little doubt that the presence of the caribou moss that our Big Land is covered with in many places, is a great example of this statement that we so often hear.

There are few places that we find ourselves in, in the country, that we don’t find it surrounding us. The common name, caribou moss, as it turns out sends out the wrong message. It’s really not moss at all.

What we call caribou moss, is really a lichen. Lichens are made up of two components, fungi and algae. These two separate components live and grow together. The spongy threads that are the lichen, support and protect the algae that provides the chlorophyll that is required to make its food. The lichen can make the necessary food when the temperatures drop very low and there is little light.

The tissues within the lichen are not easily damaged by frost, making the caribou moss a very successful plant in living on the tundra and the edges of the boreal forests. Lichens absorb their food and water through their surface cells, making them an easy target for pollutants. Any area with a healthy lichen population is an area with clean air.

When there are periods of time with very little or no water, the lichen is capable of surviving by going into a dormant state. Even after long periods of time in this state, they can begin to grow and thrive quickly when water supplies return.

Caribou moss has lots of carbohydrates in it that has historically made it a primary source of feed for caribou, especially during the coldest periods of the year. The availability of any other types of food for caribou during the cold season and the presence of a special microorganism within the caribou’s stomach that allows them to digest this plant when  other animals don’t have this capacity, has given the caribou and this lichen a recipe for their survival, relative to their food requirement.

Caribou moss is usually found to be a pale green to a pale grey color that has the appearance of underwater sponge. The have tiny branches that are numerous and grow, creating mats of plants that cover large areas of space. Their growth is extremely slow and produces only one new branch of growth each year. When you look at them closely you can easily see how many years it has taken to grow. Each little plant will only grow between one-four inches in size during its entire life.

They will grow on the floor of open coniferous floors, thin soil areas along open areas, and along the edge of bogs, as well as on the tundra, which makes much of Labrador a good home for it.

Although humans cannot easily digest lichens, early peoples in the North were said to have used it as a medicine in treating colds and fevers by watering it down with hot water and drinking it like a mild tea.

Any among us who have spent any time in the country know this plant. It is on most trips on the Big Land, surrounding us. When it is wet under foot after a rain, it is very slippery. The amazing thing is that after even extended periods of wet weather, in two-three days of dry weather, it is bone dry and will crunch under foot like you are walking on potato chips.

It provides a carpet to the land and is one of the visual effects that provides a special color and beauty that makes the Big Land such a wonderful place to call home. We can find many things of beauty that Mother Nature gives us by looking up, don’t forget to look down once in a while, there is certainly beauty there as well.


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