What is Riparian Vegetation?

Jessica Ellis
Jessica Ellis

Riparian vegetation refers to the plant life and ecosystem that exists alongside a waterway. The surrounding areas of rivers, lakes, ponds, marshes and streams are all considered riparian in nature. Riparian vegetation is an important area of study for conservationists, as the health of the plant life can also give clues to the health of the waterway.

Thriving riparian vegetation is critical to the health of streams and other waterways.
Thriving riparian vegetation is critical to the health of streams and other waterways.

The function of riparian vegetation is not only to provide a verdant bio-system near water; it also acts as a buffer and may protect the health of the body of water. A healthy abundance of plants provides nutrients to the ground and may strengthen the banks, preventing soil erosion and even absorbing harmful runoff from the water itself. If a river is polluted due to agricultural use, livestock, or runoff from factories, the riparian vegetation can help restore or improve the cleanliness of the water.

Riparian vegetation is often found along the banks of rivers and streams.
Riparian vegetation is often found along the banks of rivers and streams.

Many environmental experts consider a thriving riparian system to be vital to the health of any river, stream, or lake. Some recommend that a buffer of land be maintained alongside each bank of a body of water in order to provide adequate land for the vital function of this bio-system. In aquatic landscapes that have been severely damaged due to pollution, forestry, or development, planting trees, shrubs, and grasses along the banks is often the first step in restoring the environment to health.

In addition to protecting the water, riparian vegetation provides a variety of benefits to local wildlife. Trees and shrubs can provide shelter and protection from the elements. In addition, many plants common to the waterway banks are a source of food for many insects and animals. The ability of many bank side plants to absorb polluted runoff can also be greatly beneficial to nearby animals, as clean drinking water is vital to wildlife survival. Wildlife restoration efforts are greatly aided by the presence of a healthy terrestrial ecosystem surrounding bodies of water.

Plants common to riparian systems often require great amounts of water, but are rooted on land. Distinct from aquatic plants, vegetation surrounding a water system must be based in soil but have free access to water, in order to be designated as riparian. Ferns and herbs are often found growing in these areas, as well as many water-loving trees. In North America and much of Europe, maples, elms, and ash trees are often found along waterways. The unique riparian vegetation systems of Australia feature many different types of trees, including wattle and bottlebrush varieties.

Jessica Ellis
Jessica Ellis

With a B.A. in theater from UCLA and a graduate degree in screenwriting from the American Film Institute, Jessica is passionate about drama and film. She has many other interests, and enjoys learning and writing about a wide range of topics in her role as a wiseGEEK writer.

You might also Like

Readers Also Love

Discussion Comments


I was really struck by the idea of plants as filters. I guess this is something that I had realized was possible, but had never given much thought to. It makes a lot of sense though. If there is something harmful in the groundwater, plants will suck these toxins up into themselves and filter them out before they can spread into larger bodies of water.What an idea! Nature never fails to surprise and amaze.


Riparian vegetation became an unlikely issues a few years ago following the destruction caused by Hurricane Katrina. There were some who believed the destruction to the entire region would have been less if the swampland vegetation had been better managed over the years. The loss of significant amounts of plants and other green species in the area lead to significant soil erosion and a generally unstable land base.

It is impossible to know how things would have been different if we had not ruined the natural vegetation in this area so thoroughly, but it is something to think about in the future. When we destroy these environments, animals are not the only ones to notice. Eventually the effects filter up to effect us as well.


I have lived close to water my whole life, first by a lake, then next to the ocean, and now next to a river, and I can say from experience and observation that riparian vegetation is beautiful and varied in a way that would take pages and pages to describe. The amazing variety of plant sizes, colors, shapes, scents and combinations never failed to thrill me. It is in these environments that you find vegetation you could not find anywhere else.

The next time you are close to water take a close look at what is growing and you are sure to be thrilled.

Post your comments
Forgot password?