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History of Plant Ecology

  1. Joel B Hagen

Published Online: 15 NOV 2010

DOI: 10.1002/9780470015902.a0003288.pub2



How to Cite

Hagen, J. B. 2010. History of Plant Ecology. eLS. .

Author Information

  1. Radford University, Radford, Virginia, USA

Publication History

  1. Published Online: 15 NOV 2010


Plant ecology originated during the late nineteenth century in Germany and Scandinavia. Early plant ecologists pursued two broad areas of research: synecology, the study of plant communities and autecology, the study of the adaptation of species to their environments. Plant ecology developed rapidly in Britain and the United States during the first decade of the twentieth century, before animal ecology and other specialties emerged. The study of plant communities, particularly plant succession, became the central focus of ecological research during the first half of the twentieth century. After Second World War, the status of plant ecology as a distinctive area of research declined as new fields such as population ecology and ecosystem ecology gained prominence. However, plant ecologists continued to make substantial contributions to these newer areas of research.

Key Concepts:

  • Early plant ecologists studied plant communities and the adaptation of species to the physical and biological environments.

  • Laboratory physiology provided an important intellectual model for the early development of plant ecology.

  • Plant ecology was the first ecological specialty to emerge, and plant ecologists were largely responsible for establishing the discipline of ecology.

  • The process of plant succession was an important focus of research for American ecologists during the first half of the twentieth century.

  • Population genetics and evolutionary theory of the Modern Synthesis strongly influenced the development of population ecology after Second World War.

  • Population biology combined methods and ideas from population ecology, population genetics and evolutionary theory to study both plant and animal populations.

  • Ecosystem ecology emphasised the important energy-capturing role of plants as the photosynthetic producers in terrestrial ecosystems.

  • Long-term research carried out by large teams of scientists became a major feature of ecosystem ecology.


  • plant communities;
  • population biology;
  • population ecology;
  • vegetation;
  • plant geography;
  • ecology;
  • ecosystems;
  • succession;
  • adaptation;
  • natural selection