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What Is Plant Ecology?

A root system.
Plant ecologists may study plants that grow in specific ecosystems, such as plateaus.
Plant ecology can include studying endangered ecosystems.
Plant ecologists study plant populations, includin non-vascular plants like mosses.
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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 30 March 2014
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Plant ecology is a branch of the scientific field of ecology which focuses specifically on plant populations. There are a number of applications for plant ecology, ranging from helping people develop low water gardens to studying endangered ecosystems to learn about how they can be protected. Researchers from this field tend to come from an interdisciplinary background which can feature training in a wide variety of scientific pursuits, including plant anatomy, general ecology, biology, and so forth.

The field of plant ecology includes the study of plants and their environment. Rather than just looking at plants in a vacuum, researchers consider how they interact with each other and their environment to create an interconnected system. Plant ecology can include the study of entire ecosystems, such as the rainforest or plateau, or the study of specific areas of interest, like plant populations which manage to survive next to a polluted stream. Plant ecologists also look at animals, soil conditions, and other influences on a plant's environment.

Ecology is a complex and vast field of study which can encompass everything from understanding how natural environments function to how humans interact with the natural world, and how various behaviors can fundamentally alter the natural environment. In plant ecology, people can focus on topics like climate change and its effect on plants, plant evolution, how plants disseminate themselves in nature, symbiotic relationships between plant species, plant diseases, and so forth.

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A great deal of field work is involved in plant ecology, as researchers like to see their subjects in nature so that they can learn in context. A single sample of a plant can provide interesting information and data, but actually seeing that plant growing can provide a researcher with a great deal more data. For example, looking at a plant alone, a researcher might not understand why its leaves are shaped the way they are, but when the researcher sees the plant in nature, he or she might realize that the leaves conferred some sort of benefit on the plant or the surrounding environment, ranging from signaling the presence of the plant to pollinators to providing shelter for seedlings so that they can grow up.

Plants make up a vital part of the natural environment, and plant ecologists are well aware of this. In a healthy ecosystem, plants provide food and shelter for animals, secure the soil to prevent erosion, cast shade to create microclimates, conserve water to keep it in the ecosystem instead of allowing it to be lost, and participate in the breakdown and recycling of organic material to keep the ecosystem thriving. Plants are also of critical interest because they produce oxygen, and plants have been heavily implicated in the creation of the Earth's currently oxygen-rich atmosphere.

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Discuss this Article

Fa5t3r
Post 4

@pastanaga - It's definitely a good idea to take ecosystem principles into account when designing a garden, but you should also remember that sometimes the old ways are best because they often work with nature rather than against it.

pastanaga
Post 3

@KoiwiGal - I like the idea of aquaponics, but I think it's probably out of reach for the average person, because it would be quite expensive to set up. But anyone can set up an ordinary vegetable or herb garden.

I read a bunch of books based around the science of growing vegetables before I started mine and tried to use the most advanced and earth friendly techniques that would work in a small garden. And it's worked really well, although it can occasionally be frustrating.

KoiwiGal
Post 2

One of the applications for this kind of research is in green technology and urban planning. I live in a tiny apartment at the moment, but eventually I'm planning to try and get into a bigger space and get some aquaponics going, which I really believe is the way of the future and is definitely something that plant ecologists are working on improving right now.

The point is to get a garden going that works with a community of fish, where the fish provide manure for the plants and the plants provide ideal conditions for the fish by cleaning their water.

The people keep everything in balance and they get to eat the vegetables and the fish. If you can get it working properly, it provides a lot of protein and fresh vegetables in a small space with very few energy costs.

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