In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Vegetation Classification

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Journals
  • Sampling
  • Supervised Classification of Vegetation
  • Diagnostic Species
  • Examples

Ecology Vegetation Classification
Miquel De Cáceres
  • LAST REVIEWED: 13 January 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 July 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199830060-0115


The fundamental aim of vegetation classification is to group together plant communities that are perceived as similar and thus simplify the description of the vegetation patterns in a given geographical area. Classification of vegetation is conducted on the basis of a set of selected attributes, such as the taxonomic composition of the community, the horizontal or vertical arrangement of plants, or their morphological and functional traits. Sometimes, the chosen attributes are external to the vegetation itself, such as environmental or geographic characteristics. The outcome of the classification exercise is a set of vegetation units that can be defined at different levels of abstraction and hierarchically arranged. Vegetation classification has a long history, starting in the 19th century, with the work of plant geographers, who described vegetation units using the growth form of their dominant species. During the first half of the 20th century, important developments in taxonomy-based classification were made in Europe. Followers of the Zurich-Montpellier school of phytosociology established a hierarchical classification system that became the standard in many countries. Despite its success, the phytosociological approach was not exempt from criticism, especially regarding the high degree of subjectivity and lack of formalism in some steps of the method. Together with advances in multivariate statistics, the availability of vegetation plot databases and geographic information systems allow early-21st-century plant community ecologists to classify vegetation using larger data sets and with a lower degree of subjectivity. In different parts of the world, different conventions are followed, but elemental vegetation units, often referred to as associations, are still frequently defined, in the early 21st century, using the taxonomic composition of plants found in vegetation stands. For this reason, the present article is mostly centered on this kind of vegetation classification.

General Overviews

Detailed explanations of the aims and procedures of traditional phytosociology can be found in Braun-Blanquet 1964 as well as in many other books. Among the most influential publications to note are Westhoff and Maarel 1973 and Mueller-Dombois and Ellenberg 1974, the latter presenting a synthesis of European and Anglo-American methods in vegetation ecology. Kent 2012 covers both classical procedures and multivariate statistical analyses. Concise overviews of the subject are provided by Dengler, et al. 2008, an accessible introduction to both foundations of and modern practices in phytosociology, and the International Association for Vegetation Science Vegetation Classification Methods Website.

  • Braun-Blanquet, J. 1964. Pflanzensoziologie: Grundzüge der Vegetationskunde. 3d ed. Vienna and New York: Springer.

    DOI: 10.1007/978-3-7091-8110-2

    Third edition of the influential textbook presenting the Braun-Blanquet method. After its publication, this seminal work was translated into several other languages.

  • International Association for Vegetation Science Vegetation Classification Methods Website.

    This website, endorsed by the International Association for Vegetation Science, presents updated conceptual and methodological help for people aiming at creating or maintaining vegetation classifications, or both, using numerical approaches. The website reviews conceptual issues and analytical methods. Several bibliographic sources are cited, and available software packages are listed.

  • Dengler, J., M. Chytrý, and J. Ewald. 2008. Phytosociology. In Encyclopedia of ecology. Vol. 4. Edited by Sven Erik Jørgensen and Brian D. Fath, 2767–2779. Oxford: Elsevier.

    Gives a clear and concise introduction to the aims and conceptual basis of classical phytosociology as well as the analytical methods used in contemporary vegetation classification.

  • Kent, Martin. 2012. Vegetation description and data analysis: A practical approach. 2d ed. Chichester, UK, and Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-Blackwell.

    Updated edition offering a useful introduction to the methods used in plant community ecology in the early 21st century. Includes several chapters covering vegetation sampling, classical phytosociology, multivariate statistical analyses, and available software.

  • Mueller-Dombois, Dieter, and Heinz Ellenberg. 1974. Aims and methods of vegetation ecology. New York: Wiley.

    This book brought the first synthesis of European and Anglo-American methods in vegetation ecology. The book became the standard for the study of vegetation in many countries. Although it does not cover advances in multivariate analyses, most of the work’s material is still valid in the early 21st century.

  • Westhoff, Victor, and Eddy van der Maarel. 1973. The Braun-Blanquet approach. In Ordination and classification of communities. Edited by Robert H. Whittaker, 289–329. Handbook of vegetation science. The Hague: Junk.

    DOI: 10.1007/978-94-010-2701-4

    Describes in detail, to plant ecologists, the classical phytosociological approach to vegetation classification.

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