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Plant Communities – what are they and why does it matter

Mesic prairie“Birds of a feather flock together” applies to plants as much as it does to people who act the same and hang out together. How, when, and where plants flock together has always been my thing. Maybe it was the early influence on me by my college advisor, one the old greats, and founder of the Institute for Arctic and Alpine Research. He prodded us to explore obsessively up and down the elevations of the Colorado Front Range observing the ecotones (that transition one community to another) and notice in which community the various, gorgeous Colorado wildflowers liked to hang out in.

Early definers of phytosociology (how plants group together), came up with “Synusiae” – elementary one-layered floristically, physiognomically and ecologically homogeneous vegetation units, directly linked to uniform environmental conditions [In need of an unusual K-12 school report, you can find more of that here https://sites.google.com/site/vegclassmethods/history]. Well, enough of mountain paradise and wonky words, you are probably reading this from the Midwest flatlands and want to know what is in this blog for you.

Be proud: Minnesota holds the distinguished title of the only state in the U.S. to claim all three major continental biomes (note to self – google ‘biome’). Yes, Minnesota has a state bird and flower, and it should have a state plant community, but that would be a really tough call. Our neighbors to the west pretty much just have a bunch of various prairie plant communities, but in the land of the Mississippi headwaters, dozens of plant communities form a shifting patchwork as the prairie, eastern hardwoods forest, and northern boreal forest biomes compete for space along their ecotones. It all makes for a grand time when PRI botanists are sleuthing for nooks and crannies to source the propagated plants and seed for you that represent as many of these varied plant communities as possible. Minnesota’s distinguished place at the crossroads also has compelled state ecologists to come up with not one but three field guides to the native plant communities of Minnesota: Laurentian Mixed Forest, Eastern Broadleaf Forest, and Prairie Parkland/Tallgrass Aspen Parkland. But don’t just spend your summer in front of these easy to read guides, get out there and comb the prairies and forests noticing closely the shifting patterns – that is how you will really understand what plant communities are and maybe discover why they might matter as the underlying foundation to all of our birds and butterflies, fish and mammals, and an example of how we may more wisely manage the land.

Beth Markhart
Outreach Coordinator
Princeton, MN

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