Vegetation Mitteleuropas mit den Alpen. 6. Auflage. By Heinz Ellenberg & Christoph Leuschner. Verlag Eugen Ulmer, Stuttgart; UTB 8104. XXIV + 1334 pp.; 716 figures, 203 tables. ISBN 978-3-8252-8104-5 (UTB), ISBN 978-3-8001-2824-1 (Ulmer). €99,00


  • Eddy van der Maarel

    Corresponding author
    • Community and Conservation Ecology Group, Centre for Life Sciences, University of Groningen, Groningen, The Netherlands
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(corresponding author,

In September 2010 the 6th German edition of this monumental book by Heinz Ellenberg (1913–1997) appeared, 14 years after the 5th edition was published and shortly before Ellenberg died. Many readers will be acquainted with the English version of this book, which has reached its 4th edition (Ellenberg 2009). The Publisher provided the following synopsis of this edition:

This English translation makes this unique book, now in its fourth edition, available to a wider audience. This book is without doubt the most important work ever published about the vegetation of central Europe and its ecology. No other book contains so much ecological information and discusses so many principles relevant not only to plant ecologists in continental Europe, but to ecologists and palaeoecologists in the British Isles and North America. Besides providing valuable syntheses of the major plant communities, Ellenberg details the ecology and environmental requirements of all the vegetation types and discusses the climatic tolerances and ecological physiology of many of the major species. The account is based upon a life time of thorough field work and experimental investigation. One of the major messages to be gleaned from the book concerns the long-lasting and considerable effects of human activity upon the vegetation, and the book therefore has much to teach about the impact of agriculture and industrial pollution and highlights the need to plan carefully for the conservation of our rich natural and semi-natural environment.

With this summary the scene is set for a review of the new German edition elaborated by dr. Christoph Leuschner, professor of plant ecology and ecosystem research at the University of Göttingen (and a past Associate Editor of this journal). At the same university he obtained his PhD and habilitation degrees, in the period Ellenberg was Emeritus Professor there. As the scientific heir of Ellenberg's magnum opus Leuschner is thus a natural choice to prepare a new edition of this classical book. ‘Central Europe’ (Mitteleuropa) is a combined geographical, cultural and political concept, for most Europeans comprising Germany and its bordering states to the east and southeast and the bordering states, including much of the Alps to the south (see various websites on this topic). In the new edition Central Europe has been taken somewhat wider, as follows from the literature covered. So, to the north Denmark and southern Sweden and to the west eastern France, and particularly The Netherlands are well represented in the references.

As a matter of fact this new edition is rather a new book even though the sequence of topics has been maintained. A first section on the natural environment (‘Naturraum’) and its history contains chapters 1–3; chapter 1 dealing with the biogeographical and historical influences on the vegetation, chapter 2 on the life forms in the Central-European flora and chapter 3 on the development of the present plant cover under the ever growing influence of human society. Then follows the core of the book with a treatment of 20 major vegetation types, most of them formations, some mosaic complexes. The starting section ‘near-natural forests and shrublands’ (chapters 4–8) includes a general chapter on the ecological characteristics and subdivision of the near-natural woods of Central Europe (chapter 4) and treatments of beech forests with mixed beech forests, remaining broad-leaved forests, coniferous forests and marsh woodlands. The following section ‘near-natural non-woody formations’ (chapters 9–14) comprises aquatic vegetation, peatland, salt marshes, dunes, alpine vegetation and epiphytic vegetation. The finishing section ‘semi-natural formations’ (chapters 15–24) includes production woodlands, woodland edge and other scrubland, heathlands with related grasslands, oligotrophic hay meadows, eutrophic grasslands, grasslands on heavy metal soils, vegetation on wet soils, ruderal vegetation, vegetation on fields, and vegetation in built-up areas. Chapter 25 covers vegetation complexes in the phytosociological sense, with ‘sigma-communities’. This approach, developed by R. Tüxen, is now almost forgotten and hardly any new studies have been published since the recent turn of the century.

Leuschner explains how each chapter is divided as far as possible into 8 subchapters: (1) Flora and origin; (2) Environmental conditions and subdivision; (3) Vegetation; (4) Relations between vegetation and environment; (5) Population biology and synecology; (6) Productivity and biomass and energy flow; (7) Vegetation dynamics; and (8) Human impact. How this structure works in practice will be elucidated and commented upon while focusing on the chapter on the (largely) near-natural and relatively complex dunes. In this chapter the subchapters 6 and 7 are missing; the other ones are summarized as follows:

  • Flora and origin. The (postglacial) origin of the dunes is not treated. This is understandable given the complex history, which is well-known from the Dutch literature (van der Maarel 1997) – a work Leuschner has used – but not easy to summarize in the concise framework of the book. This may sound strange for a book of more than 1300 pp, but indeed a complete treatment of the enormous literature available for this very broad spectrum of environments is almost impossible even in a book as thick as this one. As to the flora of the dunes, first many characteristic syntaxonomical classes (but not the widely occurring scrub- and locally important woody communities) are listed. This information may be better in place in subchapter 3 on vegetation. As a matter of fact in several chapters the first subchapter does not include phytosociological information. The information on flora only contains a remark on the species richness of the dunes and one on the occurrence of coastal ecotypes. In other chapters much more is said on the representation of phytogeographical elements, while there are also chapters where this information is missing. Given the considerable differences between the chapters regarding environmental and/or phytosociological variation it is easy to understand these apparent inconsistencies. One also notices that species nomenclature is updated as fas as taxonomical work is concerned. The revolutionary DNA-based changes in systematics are not found back, however – which many ecologists will not mind. However, the revolutionary DNA-based changes in taxonomy have not been implemented.
  • Environmental conditions and subdivision. This is largely about ‘organogenic dune formation’. The various dune types along a zonation from the beach to older zones, and the abiotic and biotic factors involved in their development are lucidly described. The main division of dune systems is between the dunes along the North Sea, including the Dutch mainland dunes and the Frisian islands, and the Baltic coastal dunes of Germany and Poland). Also some attention is paid to inland sand dunes.
  • Vegetation. This subchapter contains concise descriptions of the most characteristic and most widely distributed plant communities, documented with three phytosociological tables. The phytosociological basis adopted by Ellenberg is thus fully maintained by Leuschner. Both in the text and in many figures, environmental relations (for which subchapter 4 is devised) are discussed, such as the major impact of sand mobility and responding rooting systems and coping with nutrient-poor soils in the pioneer stages. This subchapter could have been either restricted to vegetation or merged with the next subchapter.
  • Relations between vegetation and environment. This informative and balanced subchapter concentrates on adaptations to stress factors already partly mentioned under ‘Vegetation’. In addition to sand mobility and lack of nutrients there are temporary inundation with salt water, salt spray, strong seasonal variation in the water table in dune slacks, and exposure to very high temperatures.
  • Vegetation dynamics. The primary succession from the Leymus arenarius and Ammophila-dominated seaward dunes via grassland and dwarf shrub communities to tall shrub and woodland together with soil development is a classical object of study. Here the description is mainly based on available data on the zonation, whereas many studies identify ‘multiple pathways of succession’ (van der Maarel 1997), which is mentioned (in the next subchapter) but not elaborated here. Soil development and the basic difference in succession on dunes rich and poor in lime are well treated.
  • Human impact. Here the influence of deposition of nitrogen compounds, the interaction between grazing intensity and secondary succession, and the consequences of large-scale afforestations are briefly treated. The major impact of (drinking) water extraction, which has drastically alterered many dune systems, particularly in the Netherlands, is hardly mentioned.

A comparison with the other chapters makes clear that the division into eight subchapters is not followed consistently and information is often found in another subchapter than expected. Nevertheless this organization serves as a useful guideline. There is more variation in the treatment of the various community types and complexes, which is a direct consequence of their environmental complexity and human influences.

A final section contains four chapters. Ch. 26 contains a syntaxonomical survey of the phanerogamic plant communities composed by Hartmut Dierschke, Emeritus Professor at Göttingen as well. Dierschke also undertook the important task of scientifically proofreading the entire manuscript. Descriptions of almost all different types have been rewritten. Ch. 27 is a survey of the well-known indicator values (Zeigerwerte) Ellenberg developed for the plant species in Central Europe as to environmental factors, such as moisture, acidity and nitrogen. This survey is available on the website of the Publisher (see below). Ch. 28 contains the references, an estimated 5000, a stunning number, about half of which are new to the book. Ch. 29 is an impressive general index, with several thousands of main items, including all species and communities, with the main items subdivided; e.g. ‘Calluna heathlands’ has ca. 40 subitems.

In conclusion this new edition of the classical ‘Ellenberg’ is a formidable achievement of Christoph Leuschner. Well-known German-language colleagues are acknowledged for their help in checking details, but the author alone has achieved a rather uniform and balanced survey. As implied here and there in the review it seems that we are reaching the limit regarding the amount of literature one single author can collect, read and integrate. Naturally one wonders whether a new English edition, based on Leuschner's book would be useful. I would say yes! This book is directly relevant for non-German speaking vegetation ecologists in and around Central Europe, but also for colleagues in other continents as an exemplary ecological treatment of the vegetation of a large region. My main concern about the preparation of an English version follows from the assumption that such a version should not be a simple translation but a really new book. New insights in the vegetation ecology of many ecosystems are developing so fast (e.g. van der Maarel & Franklin 2012) that it would require several authors cooperating with Leuschner – and probably a growth in size to two volumes – to further integrate the vast amount of new facts and figures in a new English edition of this marvellous book. This would be worth the while!

How to get to Ellenbergs Zeigerwerte. Create an account on the Publishers Website (; log in; search for “Lehrbücher suchen”; fill in the German title, click start and click on the appearing title. A text on the 6th edition will appear, which is concluded with a field where you can download Chapter 27 of the book, the Zeigerwerte. Since the explanation on the website of the publisher is only partly in English this guide is important.