Most people are completely clueless about their local plant community!
Plants are too often viewed as random shrubs and herbs scattered around an environment without any rhyme or reason.
But to the well-trained eye, observing the community of plants that grow in your area is actually one of the best ways to develop a more keen and intimate relationship with nature.
The simple fact is that the way plants grow on a landscape is not random.
There is definite meaning and consistent patterns to how everything is organized out in nature, and best of all… you can learn to read it!
The more you know about plant communities, the easier it is to predict everything else happening in the landscape like wildlife activity, ecological health & useful resources for crafting & survival.
You’ll be amazed when you open your senses to this very special way of looking at plants.
It’s an essential skill for all naturalists, trackers & people who love the outdoors.
So let’s explore the deeper way of knowing plants & plant knowledge.
Surface Knowledge VS Deep Knowledge of Plants
Over the years I’ve observed a number of people go very deep with their knowledge of plants.
And I can definitely say there are certain qualities & characteristics that emerge from the highest levels of application in this skill.
Many herbalists have devoted their entire lives to cultivating sensitivity with plants so they can tend, harvest & apply their knowledge as a source of food & medicine.
But these skills really go so much further than medicinal application & healing.
Having deep knowledge of plants & plant communities is an important type of landscape awareness that matters every time you step foot outside.
The result is a unique perceptual ability to observe growth patterns in forests & wild spaces of our planet… informing patterns of ecological health, wildlife activity, weather, and more.
In simple terms… plants literally help you see the forest more clearly.
But you have to go deep and take the necessary time to look at your local plant communities from every possible angle.
This is why I always encourage people to focus on integrative knowledge rather than simple identification.
Looking At Plants From Every Possible Angle:
Do you know the very first question people always ask when they encounter a new plant?
What plant is this?”
Now, this is not necessarily a bad question.
But simply knowing the name of a plant is pretty much meaningless if you don’t then work towards a context of deep knowledge surrounding that name.
Do you know how you can tell when people are really on the path to going deep with their plant skills?
Look at what they do immediately after they find out that plant’s name.
Do they immediately get distracted and move on to something else?
Or do they continue observing and asking deeper questions to really know that plant from every possible angle?
This is just like human relationships. If you want to get to know someone, you don’t just ask their name and then walk away! It takes quality time to get to know someone.
And the most rewarding experiences come to those who seek depth.
Yes, they know the plant name… But they also know a whole host of other knowledge & key information that comes from direct experience:
8 Questions to Build Deep Knowledge About Plants:
- What plant is this?
- How is this plant used traditionally and also in modern applications?
- What family of plants does it belong to?
- What are the common edible, medicinal, and poisonous qualities of that plant family?
- What soil & environmental conditions does it grow in?
- What is the branching pattern? Leafing pattern? Flowering pattern?
- What other kinds of wildlife use that plant on a routine or seasonal basis?
- What other plants grow together and commonly associate with this one?
The real trick is that you need to look for how things connect together and relate as an integrated system.
You cannot look at a single plant in isolation of other plants, and even the environmental conditions themselves.
So let’s really take a closer look at the most important things you can look for next time you go adventuring for plants…
Beyond Individual Plants – What Is A Plant Community?
It’s actually really simple.
A plant community is a collection of plants that grow together, bound by environmental conditions and symbiotic relationships.
Have you ever noticed that plants grow in communities with other plants?
It’s very rare, if not impossible to find a landscape in nature with only one type of plant growing.
So why do people study individual plants without taking their companions into account?
Modern agriculture is an example of artificial conditions where a plant community is removed and replaced by just one individual plant like hay or corn.
But in the wild, nature always grows collections of plants that have uniquely matched strengths & weaknesses, making the most of available soil, light & moisture conditions.
This is what is meant by plant community.
It’s going beyond simple plant identification to look at groupings of plants together as one.
And knowing the communities of your landscape can give you some surprising abilities and instincts about what’s happening in the big picture.
Here are a few quick examples:
In the pacific northwest I spent a lot of time in grassy fields collecting dandelions, plantain & wild mint for salads. Let’s call this the grassy field plant community.
But around the edges where the field meets the forest, I would find stinging nettles & salmonberries. This is the forest edge community.
Then, if I wanted to find my favorite salad green – miner’s lettuce, I would head into the forest to miner’s lettuce & huckleberries (forest interior community).
The fascinating thing about plant communities is that they frequently give you much more information than the individual plants themselves.
It’s an extra layer of understanding that’s much more predictive and insightful than simply knowing the name of an individual plant.
With practice you can observe how these different plant communities are shaping the way that deer & rabbits move through the landscape & choose to spend their time.
As your awareness of plant resources grows, your movements will also be influenced by your knowledge of the plants in 4 seasons.
It’s a sign that you’re becoming more wild like the animals.
What Effects Your Local Plant Community?
If you haven’t realized yet… what we’re talking about here is having impeccable observation & tracking skills for plants.
It’s not about memorizing a bunch of facts or biology textbooks. These are all things you can observe with your own eyes and ears just by stepping outside.
You’ll find that observation is a much more exciting and impactful way to explore nature, because you get to play the role of detective and look for clues by watching & observing for patterns.
Here are some things to look for when you observe your local plant community:
One of the biggest driving factors of which plants grow in any environment is the particular stage of succession in a forest.
Ecological succession is what happens in a landscape after a disturbance.
This could be a natural disturbance like a fire or hurricane. Or it could be a human disturbance like clear-cutting.
Depending on where you live, there will be different types of disturbances that most commonly impact your bio-region. Is your area prone to flooding? Draught? Fire? Human impact?
Landscape disturbances are kind of like hitting the reset button on a landscape.
It turns back the hand of time and alters the soil chemistry, infiltration rate of rainwater, availability of sunlight, etc.
This is not necessarily a bad thing, as long as it all stays in balance.
In some environments, fire is a very natural & important part of maintaining peak environmental health. The fire even helps to maintain biodiversity through the process of ecological succession.
The landscape goes through a progressive sequence of changes over a period of years as it returns from bare soil to new growth to mature ecosystem… and these changes spark some very dramatic evolution in the plant community.
The first plants to grow after a landscape disturbance are often called pioneer plants.
Pioneer species are unique in that they’re not only capable of growing in very harsh conditions, they have the ability to accumulate deficient nutrients that gradually repair the soil.
This is why a field in the first year after a fire looks very different from the 3rd year after a fire.
A classic example is a sun-loving potassium accumulator called fireweed.
Fire is a disturbance that burns off soil potassium creating a nutrient deficiency.
Many plants that would otherwise thrive in the newly sun-laden environment can’t survive without potassium to help them grow.
Fireweed gets it’s name from being so effective at restoring potassium to the balance of the soil.
When the fireweed dies and decomposes, those minerals get returned to the soil and create suitable conditions for new plant communities to grow.
Gradually, the fireweed dominant community makes way for other types of plants that continue the repair process in other ways and add their own elements like nitrogen, phosphorous & other trace minerals to the landscape.
The important thing for our discussion is notice in the photo above… it’s not just fireweed that’s growing there.
There are plants in the aster family, ferns, the parsley family and many more that can’t be seen in the image. That’s the plant community!
And if you visited a nearby site affected by the same disturbance you would find a very similar collection of plants growing again.
The first few years of forest succession will be dominated mostly by herbaceous plants & herbs that break down quickly in the cold season.
But you’ll also notice very quickly, the first woody shrubs and short-lived trees. If you’re in North American it’s often things like Alder, Birch & Aspen.
The important thing about these trees & shrubs is they have the ability to manufacture their own nitrogen (another important macro-nutrient).
These are just two stages in the process of succession towards a mature forest.
Gradually, as the soil conditions change, your landscape will go through many different stages of ecological succession, each attracting different types of plants & plant communities.
This all eventually leads to a climax forest, which is a mature & stable environment that doesn’t succeed, but rather continues living & growing until the next disturbance.
Another way to look at plant communities is through the lens of plant families.
I talked about why plant families are important in my article on the parsley family.
The keys thing to remember is that:
- Plant families are easier to learn than individual species.
- They often share similar edible, medicinal, or toxic characteristics.
- In many cases they prefer the same growing conditions.
For example: Members of the Aster family often grow really well in full sun. They tend to make good pioneer species growing in early succession fields.
Many plants in the heather are well suited to open, windy, high altitudes with cold temperatures like the Scottish highlands.
Whenever you find a new plant community, ask yourself – what plant families am I seeing in this group of plants? Which families often grow together? Which families never grow together?
It will help you spot more patterns that bring clarity and meaning to the different ecological zones in your bio-region.
The Energies of Succession
While succession is a common driving force of plant communities… sometimes succession gets interrupted or stuck at a particular stage of development.
So another way to think about the plant growth as a community is by observing the actual energies of nature.
These are the true elemental conditions that determine which plants thrive, and which plants never get started.
I won’t spend too much time on this because it should be fairly common sense… but you would be surprised at how many people lack the basic awareness to recognize these patterns in the field.
Some plant communities will only grow in full sun. Others will only grow in the shade of a rich, mature forest, and others sit somewhere in-between.
Always look at how the presence or lack of sunlight influences which plants grow, and look for patterns around which plants frequently grow together. What does this tell you?
Sometimes the biggest driver of plant communities is seasonal temperatures. Proximity to ocean, and how far north you are can change the particular species that dominate different plant communities.
In many cases however, the same plant families will be present in northern fields as more southern fields. So what is the temperature telling you? What is the maximum yearly temperature? what is the minimum yearly temperature?
Moisture is hugely important… And it’s not just about rainfall.
Moisture is more importantly determined by things like how much bare soil there is, whether there’s a tree canopy providing shade, and drainage in clay/sandy/loam conditions.
What can you observe about moisture?
How well does the water drain from your landscape?
Does it pool up anywhere?
What effect does this have on the plants?
Steps For Observing Plant Communities
I hope you’re starting to see that there are literally endless different perspectives you can use to look at your local plants and make connections around how they grow as a group.
Most importantly, I want you to go outside and actually look for this stuff yourself!
It’s not really going to help you if you don’t use your eyes and apply the information.
So next time you go for a walk in nature, use the opportunity to stretch your awareness of plant communities.
Here are 8 tips to keep in mind:
#1 Take inventory of plants and soil types
What plant families are you seeing? Lots of asters in old open fields? Lots of mint in short grass? Lots of moss in the deep old forests?
When you go outside to study plants, don’t just look at the plants!
Look at everything, because it’s all connected.
The first thing you need to do is develop really good observation skills.
- What can I observe right now?
- How many new observations can I make in the next 30 seconds?
- How can I push my observations deeper?
Gradually you’ll start to notice common themes & patterns. Your instincts about what to look for will become very sharp with practice.
#2 Look for biodiversity
Start tuning your awareness to which types of landscapes in your area have the highest level of biodiversity, and which areas have the least biodiversity?
How many different types of plants can you find growing together? Ask yourself, what environmental conditions are creating this effect?
What are the common disturbances that interrupt mature ecosystems and reset the process of ecological succession?
What is the history of your landscape that drives biodiversity?
#3 Take inventory of trees & animals
The community of life surrounding a particular plant is not just limited to plants.
There are animals & a whole host of other landscape elements occupying that same space in a constant cycle of resources that enables life to thrive.
Owls love voles. Voles love grass. Grass loves sun & moisture!
What animals are you seeing?
What animal sign is associated with different plant communities?
What trees are associated with different plant communities?
#4 Look For Signs of Moisture
Notice whether the plant community in this place is being affected by moisture.
Where can you find seasonal moisture like flooding in late winter?
Where are the driest spots in your environment?
What happens to the plants as you approach water?
#5 Look For The Effects of Sunlight
Notice the overall level of sunlight.
How does it effect the north side of a hill versus the south side?
Are you in a coniferous or deciduous forest? Which has more biodiversity?
Is the canopy open or closed?
How is all this effecting the plants?
#6 Get a good field guide to plants.
A good field guide should help you
a. Identify plants.
b. Learn the plant families
c. Learn the history and uses of different plants.
I like Peterson field guides & also Audubon. My current source for plant ID is Edible & Medicinal Plants of Canada published by Lone Pine.
Be aware that most field guides do very little to directly help you learn the plant communities.
They share some basic information like growing conditions, but then it’s up to you to connect all that information together in the context of your own landscape.
Make your own observations!
I would also encourage you to be mindful of how much time you’re spending in field guides compared to actual time in the field making observations.
Field guides can really speed up the journey, but they can also be distraction. Don’t get too intellectual or academic.
The most important thing is always to use your senses outside.
#7 Name it and claim it!
Whenever you spot a new plant, I would encourage you to spend some time getting to know it.
Carry a sketch book. Write a written description of the leaf pattern, vein pattern, flower pattern, colors… anything that stands out to you.
Then sketch it as best you can. I shared some simple guidelines for sketching in my article on how to keep a nature journal.
Finally give it a name. It doesn’t have to be the actual scientific name, just something to help you remember.
I like common names like dandelion & blueberry because it helps you communicate your observations with other plant geeks… but you can also make up your own names to fill in the gap until you discover the true identity.
Here are some tips for when you need help identifying plants.
#8 Join Other Plant Geeks
I would definitely encourage you to get involved with a community of other plant & nature enthusiasts who are actively sharing observations & curiosity.
The first step in nature observation is always to have an experience… but then it’s equally as important to debrief your observations and unpack the lessons.
Sharing with others will dramatically speed your journey (probably more than anything else).
Plant Skills Mission:
Well there you have it…
I’ll leave you with a simple challenge to get outside sometime in the next week and observe your local plant community.
- What plants are most common in your area?
- What are their favorite conditions? (soil, water, sunlight, etc)
- What other plants are always close at hand? (ecology)
Make a commitment to do this! You’ll be glad you did 🙂
Joanne Ramundo says
Thank you for this Brian. This is one of the best articles on plants and their community that I have ever read.
Brian Mertins says
Thanks so much Jo! I’m glad you enjoyed it 🙂
Theodora Lindsey says
‘‘This is an amazing article Brian ?? Thanks for being so generous and sharing your gifts. You are transforming lives ????
Brian Mertins says
Thanks Theodora! It’s a joy having you on the live calls and seeing how you share your gifts too 🙂