What is Phytosociology? - Definition & History

Instructor: Laura Foist

Laura has a Masters of Science in Food Science and Human Nutrition and has taught college Science.

There are many different methods of classifying plants. In this lesson, we will learn what phytosociology is and how it classifies plants and explore some of the methods used.

Preventing Confusion

Let's say that you were at a friend's house and they had a beautiful flower that they called Lady Slipper. You were excited to buy one of your own so you went to the greenhouse to buy one. But when they brought you a Lady Slipper flower it looked completely different from the flower you saw at your friend's house. You may wonder where the confusion happened, but really Lady Slipper is used as the layman's term for several different types of flowers. People use different common names for the same plant, and the same name may be used for multiple plants.

In order to help prevent this confusion, scientists use scientific names for plants. These scientific names are developed based on classifications of plants and how they are related to each other. The study of plant classifications and their relationships is called phytosociology.

Phytosociology History

Phytosociology began in the early 19th century, although the name phytosociology didn't come about until the end of the 19th century. Alexander von Humboldt is credited with starting this approach to studying plants. Von Humboldt studied how plants grow together. Through his study of volcanoes and how different areas of volcanic action have similar flora and fauna, he realized that an area's flora and fauna are connected based on what occurs in the area.

In the 20th century there were four main schools that developed in Europe in the phytosociology field:

  • Scandinavian: used small plot sizes to describe and measure plants. Put strong importance on the dominant species of these plots.
  • Zurich-Montpellier: standard plot sampling and species sorting, and hierarchal ordering
  • Synusial: links units or areas based on environmental conditions
  • Russian: detailed descriptions of the major growths, this method was developed in Russia due to the large, expansive areas with little vegetation

Plants can be classified into separate groups

Phytosociology Today

The invention of computers modernized the field of phytosociology, allowing greater amounts of data to be analyzed. No longer did phytosociology need to rely on data from small plots, or only looking at the dominant species. Instead, entire communities could be classified and analyzed. Today there are five main classification methods:

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