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World Vegetation Systems


World Natural Vegetation

Deciduous Forests, Texas Hill
Deciduous Forest, Texas Hill Country

• Vegetation is found nearly everywhere.

Vegetation is found nearly everywhere.

By Mary Lee Nolan, PhD

Modified and edited by RK Vermillion
Plants cling to the cold slopes of
• Glacier National Park, Montana
..and struggle to survive in dry
conditions of deserts.
• Death Valley NP, California
Where warmth is constant and moisture abundant, as in rainy tropical lands,
Where warm air is constant and
The land surface is covered with a dense blanket of vegetation. (Monteverde,
Costa Rica)
moisture abundant,
• As in rainy tropical lands, the land surface
is covered with a dense blanket of
Chlorophyll, which gives plants their
characteristic green tones, allows plants to
combine water, carbon dioxide and solar
energy into biomass through a process called

As photosynthesis occurs, carbon dioxide and water are converted into
t organic compounds and oxygen.
Plants not only provide the basic source of nourishment for all forms of life, but
also perpetuate the earth’s oxygen rich atmosphere.
Natural vegetation consists of the plants that develop in an area due to natural
conditions of soil and climate (Mt. Rainier NP, Washington)
Although much of the earth’s vegetation at present is either planted or cultivated,
or has been greatly modified by human and domesticated animals, it is possible
to generalize about the natural vegetation of a particular place due to
climate and soil (Mendocino, CA)
Plants are typically found with other types of plants
that are adapted to the same kind of environment.
These associated plant species, which form the vegetation
of a particular place, make up a plant community.
(Desert Botanical Gardens of Phoenix, AZ)
Each plant community is part of an
ecosystem that consists of all the
plants and animals in a place as they
interact with each other and with elements
of the inorganic environment..

The word biome is used by ecologists and biogeographers

to refer to highly generalized ecosystem types that can be
described and mapped on a world scale.
Although a biome includes animals along with attributes of the inorganic
environment such as soil minerals and water, it is usually named after its
dominant vegetation association. These zebras, for example, live
in a tropical savanna biome.
The reason for the emphasis on
vegetation is that plants normally
make up the bulk of the biomass,
or total weight of the organisms,
and are often more conspicuous
parts of the visible landscape than
are animals (Tobago).
Because biomes are described in terms of plant life,
it is useful to review the major taxonomic categories
of plants.
Small low growing plants, such as mosses and liverworts,
are referred to as bryophytes.
Pteridophytes include ferns, horsetails, and club mosses, all of
which are spore bearing plants that thrive in humid environments.
In tropical rainforests, pteridophytes such
as these tree ferns reach heights of 50 feet or more.
Millions of years ago, these plants were far more
prevalent than today.
Gymnosperms, the term meaning “naked seeds”, carry their
seeds in cones. When the cones open, the seeds fall out. As
a group, gymnosperms were also more common in the
geologic past.
The most important of these coniferous plants at present are needle-leaf
evergreen trees such as pines and this Korean fir. The wood of these
trees a simple cellular and they are often referred to as “softwoods”.
Some conifers, such as the Douglas fir, are considered “hardwoods”.
Angiosperms are flowering plants that develop seeds protected
by a fruit, nut or pod. This is a sweetbay magnolia, common to the
S.E. U.S.
These plants (angiosperms) include many species of trees, shrubs,
grasses, and forbs.
Angiosperms have been the dominant vegetation on much of the earth’s
surface for the past 50 to 60 million years.
An important structural distinction between types of plants is made on the
basis of the stem or trunk. Woody plants, such as trees and shrubs, have
trunks composed of a hard fibrous material.
A tree is a woody plant with a
single main trunk that branches
Into a crown toward the top.
This is a coastal redwood,
Shrubs are also woody plants, but are generally lower than trees and
characterized by several stems branching out near the ground.
Woody vines that climb trees
Are called lianas.
These plants are particularly
Common in tropical forests.
Small, tender plants without woody stems are collectively known as
herbs. Herbaceous vegetation is subdivided into grasses and forbs.
Grasses are characterized by narrow leaves and stems growing from roots.
Forbs are broadleafed herbs that put forth leaves from shoots and generally
grow from the tips rather than their roots.
Epiphytes are plants that grow on other plants and are, therefore,
out of contact with the soil. This Costa Rican tree harbors a variety
Of bromeliads.
In humid tropical regions, most plants are evergreen. They loose old
Leaves and grow new ones through out the year (Amazon River)
Plants growing in harsher climates respond to seasonal changes in various
ways. Annuals are plants that go to seed and die before the onset of dry or cold
Perennials survive the periods of unfavorable for plant growth in various
Ways. Deciduous trees and shrubs shed their leaves and become
dormant during seasons of cold or too dry to favor growth
(Longleafpine/oak Georgia USA).
The majority of broadleafed woody plants in temperate zones are deciduous. H
Euonymous alata ‘Compacta,’ or winged burning bush. It will soon loose
its leaves.
The foliage of coniferous needle-leafed plants is tough and thin and most of these
Trees are evergreens even in climates with cold winters as here on the south side
Of Mount Hood Oregon.
A few species of needle-leafed trees are deciduous. The needles of these
western larches in Oregon have turned golden prior to being shed in the
late fall. The trees in the foreground are evergreen pines.
Leaf texture vary greatly depending on climate, habitat, and the different degrees
with which water loss from the leaf into the air constitutes a problem for plant growth.
Leaves of average thickness are described as membranous.
Sugar maple in the fall.
Sclerophyllous leaves are hard, leathery and thick, thus reducing moisture loss.
Young Manzanitas leaf, San Francisco, CA
Succulent leaves and stems can hold large amounts of water in their spongy
tissues and are characteristic of plants growing in arid conditions. Agave, AZ
These varied types of leaves are all adaptations to particular types of
environments. The amount of moisture available for plant growth is
especially important. Fall in New England.
The higher the temperature, the greater the amount of moisture needed to
sustain a given type of community. Thus in the very hot region of the SW of the US,
desert conditions may be found in areas with close to 10 inches of annual rainfall.
Joshua Tree, Nevada.
Under subarctic conditions, the same
amount of precipitation may support
forest vegetation. Evapotranspiration
Is low. Boreal Forest, Canada.
Cactuses are one type of plant that can
Tolerate lack of moisture for long periods
of time and thus thrive in dry habitats.
Such plants are referred to as
xerophytes. (strawberry hedgehog
cactus , Arizona).
Hydrophytes are plants that can grow in water or in boggy habitats where high
water tables restrict the growth of many plants. Pitcher Plant Bog, East Texas
Mesophytes, such as these ponderosa pines, are plants found in places
with intermediate amounts of water available on a fairly regular basis.
This African baobab tree
represents plants that are
adapted to areas with a
yearly cycle of drought
following adequate moisture.
These are called
tropophytes after
The Greek word tropo
meaning change or turn.
In wet-dry tropical regions tropophytes may lose their leaves as the dry season
advances and bear foliage again during times of rain. Here in Botswana,
in southern Africa, trees tapping water from the Chobe River are green during
the dry season in contrast with the low forest on higher ground.
Temperature directly affects the rates at which physiological processes take place.
Many tropical plants can not withstand cold temperatures and thus are restricted
to regions with mild temperatures year-round such as here in Roatan, Honduras.
Other plants adapted to colder climates,
fail to flourish in tropical regions. In
general, however, the cooler the average
annual temperature, the smaller the
number of plant species capable of
surviving as here in Greenland.
Biogeograghers often describe and map plant communities in terms of
their structure, general appearance and coverage of the dominant plants.
On the map the dark green tones represent Taiga (boreal forest); the
lighter green, temperate deciduous forests; yellow, grasslands; orange, deserts;
bright green, tropical rain forests; and pink, Woodland/shrublands
Forests are dominated by trees growing close enough together that their leafy
canopies generally touch or overlap as in this German broadleaf deciduous
Forests require a
considerable amount
of moisture, but
can survive under
a wide range of
There are several
forest biomes.
Usal Redwood Forest
Mendocino County, CA
Although each biome is named for a dominant vegetation association, the concept
also includes all forms of animal life as well as the relationship between living things
and other aspects of the environment such as soils, topography, and climate.
The tropical rainforest biome is found in areas of year-round heat and moisture
as here on the Amazon River. These forests, sometimes called selva, are
composed of numerous species of tall, broadleaf evergreen trees.
Tropical regions with a marked dry season support similar forests, but in
these regions the tree canopies tend to be more open and many of the tree
species mat lose some or all of their leaves during the dry season. This
biome is referred to as the tropical monsoon forest or the tropical
deciduous forest. Trinidad during the dry season.
Mid-latitude forests are adapted to seasonal changes in temperature and are
composed of fewer tree species than are found in tropical forests. Lower Lewis
River Falls, Gifford Pinchot National Forest, Washington .
By Mauz Khatree
Broadleaf deciduous forests
Once covered most of the eastern
U.S., Europe, and eastern Asia.
These are all humid regions with
cool-to- cold winters and mild-to-hot
summers. Giant panda
(Ailuropoda melanoleuca),
Qin Ling Mountains, Sichuan, China
Middle-latitude coniferous forests are particularly extensive
In North America. “Bluebells in a Coniferous Forest”
The boreal forest is a coniferous forest adapted to harsh sub-artic regions.
Nistowiak Falls, Saskatchewan, Canada
The taiga is a biome that borders the boreal forest, separating it from the tundra.
The taiga is park-like, with just a few tree species that can withstand the cold
Throughout most temperate zones, as moisture available for plant use
declines,forests give way to woodlands in which trees are lower in
height and spaced further apart as you can see in this photo of Acacia
trees in the Southern Highlands of Tanzania.
Shrublands, represented by this assemblage of shrubs,`
and small trees, is representative of many regions of southern Africa.
Because many of the shrubland plants
in the tropics and subtropics have thorns,
this type of low, thick woody vegetation
cover is sometimes referred to as thorn forest.
Umbrella Thorn Acacia, Africa
A woody drought-resistant vegetation found along the shores of the Mediterranean
Sea and in other subtropical regions with mild, wet winters and hot, dry summers.
This biome, which has been greatly modified by human occupation, is probably
Best known as Mediterranean woodland and shrub although it may also be
called sclerophyll forest or chaparral. Santa Susanas Mts.,CA.
The classic savanna, landscape of grasses and scattered trees is seen here
in Kenya’s Masai Mara National Park. The grassy savanna is one of several
variations found in the tropical grassland biome.
Mid-latitude grasslands include prairies characterized by tall to medium
grasses (tall grass prairies) with trees along the water courses…
Tallgrass Prairie Preserve, Northern OK.
…. And steppes of drier regions where short grasses
frequently grow in bunches (shortgrass prairies) as
here on the Anatolian Plateau in Turkey.
Deserts are aria regions where bare ground shows between widely spaced
individual plants. Some areas as rock faces and sand dunes may be barren,
Sonoran Desert, Arizona.
Tundra is the low-growing, largely herbaceous
vegetation of artic regions
and mountainous heights. Here
a musk ox has been grazing on this seasonal
food source. Much of the tundra is undergoing
a “meltdown” of the underling permafrost.
Reducing the complexity of world natural vegetation into a few broad categories
requires extensive generalization.

The concept of biomes is merely a useful way to organize information as a

prelude to gaining more understanding of the great diversity of life on earth.