Vegetation is an assemblage of plant species and the ground cover they
provide. It is a general term, without specific reference to
particular taxa, life forms, structure, spatial extent, or any other
specific botanical or geographic characteristics. It is broader than
the term flora which refers to species composition. Perhaps the
closest synonym is plant community, but vegetation can, and often
does, refer to a wider range of spatial scales than that term does,
including scales as large as the global. Primeval redwood forests,
coastal mangrove stands, sphagnum bogs, desert soil crusts, roadside
weed patches, wheat fields, cultivated gardens and lawns; all are
encompassed by the term vegetation.
The vegetation type is defined by characteristic dominant species, or
a common aspect of the assemblage, such as an elevation range or
environmental commonality. The contemporary use of vegetation
approximates that of ecologist Frederic Clements' term earth cover, an
expression still used by the Bureau of Land Management. Natural
vegetation refers to plant life undisturbed by humans in its growth
and which is controlled by the climatic conditions of that
1 History of definition
3.1 Temporal dynamics
3.2 Spatial dynamics
4 See also
6 Further reading
7 External links
History of definition
The distinction between vegetation (the general appearance of a
community) and flora (the taxonomic composition of a community) was
first made by
Jules Thurmann (1849). Prior to this, the two terms
(vegetation and flora) were used indiscriminately, and still are
in some contexts.
Augustin de Candolle
Augustin de Candolle (1820) also made a similar
distinction, but he used the terms "station" (habitat type) and
"habitation" (botanical region). Later, the concept of
vegetation would influence the usage of the term biome, with the
inclusion of the animal element.
Other concepts similar to vegetation are "physiognomy of vegetation"
(Humboldt, 1805, 1807) and "formation" (Grisebach, 1838, derived from
"Vegetationsform", Martius, 1824).
Departing from Linnean taxonomy, Humboldt established a new science,
dividing plant geography between taxonomists who studied plants as
taxa and geographers who studied plants as vegetation. The
physiognomic approach in the study of vegetation is common among
biogeographers working on vegetation on a world scale, or when there
is a lack of taxonomic knowledge of some place (e.g., in the tropics,
where biodiversity is commonly high).
The concept "vegetation type" is more ambiguous. For some authors, it
includes, besides physiognomy, floristic and habitat aspects.
Furthermore, the phytosociological approach in the study of vegetation
relies upon a fundamental unit, the plant association, which is
defined upon flora.
An influential, clear and simple classification scheme for types of
vegetation was produced by Wagner & von Sydow (1888).
Other important works with a physiognomic approach includes Grisebach
(1872), Warming (1895, 1909), Schimper (1898), Tansley and Chipp
(1926), Rübel (1930),
Burtt Davy (1938), Beard (1944, 1955), André
Aubréville (1956, 1957), Trochain (1955, 1957), Küchler (1967),
Ellenberg and Mueller-Dombois (1967) (see vegetation classification).
Biomes classified by vegetation
Temperate broadleaf and mixed forest
Subtropical moist forest
Tropical and subtropical dry forest
There are many approaches for the classification of vegetation
(physiognomy, flora, ecology, etc.). Much of the work
on vegetation classification comes from European and North American
ecologists, and they have fundamentally different approaches. In North
America, vegetation types are based on a combination of the following
criteria: climate pattern, plant habit, phenology and/or growth form,
and dominant species. In the current US standard (adopted by the
Federal Geographic Data Committee
Federal Geographic Data Committee (FGDC), and originally developed by
UNESCO and The Nature Conservancy), the classification is hierarchical
and incorporates the non-floristic criteria into the upper (most
general) five levels and limited floristic criteria only into the
lower (most specific) two levels. In Europe, classification often
relies much more heavily, sometimes entirely, on floristic (species)
composition alone, without explicit reference to climate, phenology or
growth forms. It often emphasizes indicator or diagnostic species
which may distinguish one classification from another.
In the FGDC standard, the hierarchy levels, from most general to most
specific, are: system, class, subclass, group, formation, alliance,
and association. The lowest level, or association, is thus the most
precisely defined, and incorporates the names of the dominant one to
three (usually two) species of a type. An example of a vegetation type
defined at the level of class might be "Forest, canopy cover >
60%"; at the level of a formation as "Winter-rain, broad-leaved,
evergreen, sclerophyllous, closed-canopy forest"; at the level of
alliance as "Arbutus menziesii forest"; and at the level of
association as "Arbutus menziesii-Lithocarpus densiflora forest",
referring to Pacific madrone-tanoak forests which occur in California
and Oregon, USA. In practice, the levels of the alliance and/or
association are the most often used, particularly in vegetation
mapping, just as the Latin binomial is most often used in discussing
particular species in taxonomy and in general communication.
Australia classifies its vegetation by Ecological
Like all the biological systems, plant communities are temporally and
spatially dynamic; they change at all possible scales. Dynamism in
vegetation is defined primarily as changes in species composition
and/or vegetation structure.
Temporally, a large number of processes or events can cause change,
but for sake of simplicity they can be categorized roughly as either
abrupt or gradual. Abrupt changes are generally referred to as
disturbances; these include things like wildfires, high winds,
landslides, floods, avalanches and the like. Their causes are usually
external (exogenous) to the community—they are natural processes
occurring (mostly) independently of the natural processes of the
community (such as germination, growth, death, etc.). Such events can
change vegetation structure and composition very quickly and for long
time periods, and they can do so over large areas. Very few ecosystems
are without some type of disturbance as a regular and recurring part
of the long term system dynamic.
Fire and wind disturbances are
particularly common throughout many vegetation types worldwide. Fire
is particularly potent because of its ability to destroy not only
living plants, but also the seeds, spores, and living meristems
representing the potential next generation, and because of fire's
impact on fauna populations, soil characteristics and other ecosystem
elements and processes (for further discussion of this topic see fire
Temporal change at a slower pace is ubiquitous; it comprises the field
of ecological succession. Succession is the relatively gradual change
in structure and taxonomic composition that arises as the vegetation
itself modifies various environmental variables over time, including
light, water and nutrient levels. These modifications change the suite
of species most adapted to grow, survive and reproduce in an area,
causing floristic changes. These floristic changes contribute to
structural changes that are inherent in plant growth even in the
absence of species changes (especially where plants have a large
maximum size, i.e. trees), causing slow and broadly predictable
changes in the vegetation. Succession can be interrupted at any time
by disturbance, setting the system either back to a previous state, or
off on another trajectory altogether. Because of this, successional
processes may or may not lead to some static, final state. Moreover,
accurately predicting the characteristics of such a state, even if it
does arise, is not always possible. In short, vegetative communities
are subject to many variables that together set limits on the
predictability of future conditions.
As a general rule, the larger an area under consideration, the more
likely the vegetation will be heterogeneous across it. Two main
factors are at work. First, the temporal dynamics of disturbance and
succession are increasingly unlikely to be in synchrony across any
area as the size of that area increases. That is, different areas will
be at different developmental stages due to different local histories,
particularly their times since last major disturbance. This fact
interacts with inherent environmental variability (e.g. in soils,
climate, topography, etc.), which is also a function of area.
Environmental variability constrains the suite of species that can
occupy a given area, and the two factors together interact to create a
mosaic of vegetation conditions across the landscape. Only in
agricultural or horticultural systems does vegetation ever approach
perfect uniformity. In natural systems, there is always heterogeneity,
although its scale and intensity will vary widely.
Vegetation and slope stability
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Vegetation of the United States Volume I – The
Vegetation Classification System: Development, Status, and
Federal Geographic Data Committee
Federal Geographic Data Committee
Vegetation Classification Standard [FGDC-STD-005, June 1997] (PDF)
Vegetation Assets States and
Interactive world vegetation map by Howstuffworks
USGS - NPS
Vegetation Mapping Program
Checklist of Online
Plant Distribution Maps
VEGETATION image processing and archiving centre at VITO
Spot-VEGETATION programme web page
Further information: climate diagram
Climate Diagrams Explained
ClimateDiagrams.com Provides climate diagrams for more than 3000
weather stations and for different climate periods from all over the
world. Users can also create their own diagrams with their own data.
Forests, woodlands, arboretum
Shrublands, scrubs, thickets, fruticetum
Dwarf-shrubland, subshrublands, dwarf-scrubs, suffruticetum
Herbaceous communities, grasslands, steppes, prairies, herbetum
Scarcely vegetated areas, desert vegetation
Pluvial, rainy, ombrophilous
Loss of leaves
Sclerophyll, stiff leaves
Orthophyll, hyptiophyll leaves