Like all lichens, the powderpuff lichen, Cladina evansii, is one of nature's Frankencreatures. It's not a plant. It's not a moss. It's a lichen, and like all lichens, it's a symbiotic mix of fungus and algae living together and forming an altogether different organism.
It is one of 14 members of the Cladina genus (also called Cladonia) that are known as reindeer mosses. Cladina evansii literally means Evans' reindeer moss. One member of the genus, Cladina perforata, is on the endangered species list.
Powderpuff lichen's range includes Broward, Palm Beach and Martin counties, along with other parts of Florida. Our guy here is found throughout eastern North America, along the Atlantic and Gulf coastal plains. It's also native to the Bahamas and Cuba. It grows in open areas, in sandy soils. We've found it in scrubs and flatwoods along ancient dunes at various sites in South Florida. It's extremely common. Unlike most other lichens found around here, this one grows on the ground, forming colonies that remind us of patchy melting snow. It is spongy looking, sometimes seafoam green in color, sometimes gray, a few inches tall. Lichens can be difficult to identify by sight, even for experts, but powderpuff's ground habit makes it easy.
Cladina lichens are called reindeer mosses because of their antler-like filaments. But reindeer also have been known to eat Cladina as well. Generally speaking, they are good indicators of air quality; they don't thrive in heavily polluted air. Because lichens lack the outer protective coatings of plants, they will absorb metals and other toxins. Scientists use them to monitor air quality. The U.S. Forest Service has even devised a monitoring system using lichens.
The surprising thing about lichens is that almost all are edible, and that includes powderpuff. If you're really desperate, you could eat the stuff raw, but it doesn't particularly taste good (like aspirin) and the stomach ache you'd get afterwards because of its high acid content would make you regret it. The secret to eating it is in the preparation, which involves multiple washings and the use of something to neutralize the acid, such as sodium carbonate. Lichens, including members of Cladina, have been used in Scandanavia to make booze. Lichens tend to be high in carbs and provide other nutrients, but the content will vary according to the species.
Lichens are extraordinarily slow-growing plants, with growth rates as low as a millimeter a year. They can be extraordinarily long-lived, however, with life spans into the thousands of years.
Scientifically, lichens are included in the fungi kingdom; fungus provide lichen's structure, while the algae essentially provide the working parts.
Powderpuff lichen is a member of Cladoniaceae, a family of lichens.