University of Maryland Extension

Part 5: The Past - Native Plant Community Examples

Native plant communities are concepts, not realities.  Seeds don't arrive at an unfamiliar community and refuse to grow unless they see others of their kind!  If a seed can reach an area and the conditions are right, it will begin to grow.  Nonetheless, there are associations of plants we see over and over again in particular types of places.  These patterns are useful to us when contemplating how to design, install and maintain sustainable landscapes. 


Exercises like this one help you build associations among past experiences and tie them in to new information.

  1. Make a list of the natural areas you have visited in Maryland.
  2. What plant communities did you see there?  Annotate your list. 
  3. It’s okay if your answer doesn’t look technical.  For example, maybe you visited Greenbelt National Park, and you saw forests.  You might write “forest”, or you might recall that the forests in the stream valleys were different from those on the hill tops.  Make a note that reflects how they were different as best as you can, like “floodplain forest” or “wetland forest” or even “red maple wetland forest”. 

Here are a few plant communities that characterize parts of Maryland for me.  Were any of these on your list?

  • Acidic upland forests – Oak Heath Forest
  • Basic upland forests – Basic Oak Hickory Forest
  • Cypress swamps
  • Whale wallows/Delmarva Bays (a type of wetland on the Coastal Plain, often includes meadow, shrub and forest components)
  • Bogs (magnolia bogs, cranberry bogs)
  • Serpentine barrens (a type of meadow)
  • Shale barrens (herbaceous plants growing in rock outcrops)
  • Beach sand dunes

Some of these plant communities (like the magnolia bogs) are associated with specific ecoregions, while others can ((like the Oak Heath Forest) be found in several ecoregions. 

This will be our last lesson in the context of pre-contact Maryland.  The pre-contact perspective has allowed us to build a framework for considering which plant communities are found where.   Now it's time to look at just a few specific examples. 

Had Enough?

If you've heard more than you want to about native plant communities, skip this section.  But if you would like to read more, here are some leads for you:

1.  Melvin Brown and and Russell Brown wrote a few pages about them in the introduction to each of their books:

Herbaceous Plants of Maryland. Port City Press, Inc., Baltimore, Maryland. 1127pp.

Woody Plants of Maryland. Port City Press, Inc., Baltimore, Maryland. 347pp. (1972)

Both books are available from bookstores near the University of Maryland campus in College Park, where they run well under $100 each.  If you shop for them online you may encounter some dramatically higher prices - they are out of print.

2. These popular books about natural areas in Maryland that include quite a bit on plant communities:

About serpentine barrens in the Piedmont:
Soldier's Delight Journal by Jack Wennerstrom (1995), Johns Hopkins University Press.
About a quartzite mountain and its plant community in the Piedmont:
Sugarloaf: A Guide to the Mountain's History, Geology, and Natural Lore by Melanie Choukas-Bradley and Tina Thieme-Brown (2004), University of Virginia Press. (There is also an accompanying field guide called An Illustrated Guide to Eastern Woodland Wildflowers and Trees). 

Assignment: Visiting Your Park - Phytocaching

You've got your reference park picked out and your flora handy.  It's time to start visiting your park.  Stop by the visitor's center if you haven't already, and get a trail map.  Also ask for any interpretive brochures on geology and soils.  Time to go hiking. 

Use your species list:

1. How many of the species on your species list can you find in the park?  (Try to stay on the trails, be careful not to trample the ground around wildflowers).

2. Do certain species seem to be concentrated in certain types of places?  Annotate your flora printout accordingly.  For example, next to swamp milkweed you might write, "Floodplain, only where there is some sun".

3. Are certain species easier to find at certain times of year?  Use four colored highlighters to mark the ones that are easiest to find in spring, summer, fall, and winter.  Or write the season in the margin of the paper of your print out.  Examples might include bluebells, which can only be found in spring, or sycamore, which is much easier to spot in winter.

4. Schedule trips to visit the park during the other seasons. 

5. Check with the park to see if there are any guided hikes that might interest you.  Even when the hike topic is not flora, the trip leader and attendees often have a lot of plant knowledge.

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