Plant Ecology

Course CodeBEN305
Fee CodeS3
Duration (approx)100 hours
QualificationStatement of Attainment
Understand the nature and principles of plant ecology, and apply that understanding to landscape design, and the cultivation of plants.
  • Take it as a stand alone course to expand and deepen your perspective on how the world around you works.
  • Take it as a module within a certificate or diploma in horticulture, environmental management or science
  • Take is to complement studies in Garden Design, Permaculture or Plant Management

When you better understand the interrelationships that can develop between plants, you have a foundation for using and managing them, far more effectively.


Lesson Structure

There are 8 lessons in this course:

  1. Introductory Ecology
    • Definitions for ecology, ecosystems
    • Constituents of an ecosystem
    • Ecological concepts
    • Interrelationships between climate, soil and living things (consumers, decomposers)
    • The food web
    • Habitat and niche
    • Biomes
    • Terminology
  2. Plant Communities
    • Open and closed plant communities
    • Habitat types
    • Location and characteristics of biomes
    • Semi natural vegetation
    • Competition
    • Succession of plant communities
    • Community stability and equilibrium
    • Environmental stress
    • Edge effectsTerminology
  3. Plants and their Environment
    • Development, structure and function
    • Plant modifications: functional adaptions
    • Environmental factors: light, temperature, fires, wind
    • Monitoring abiotic factors
    • Introduction to Environmental assessment
    • Pre purchase inspection of a site
    • Background data
    • Flora and fauna surveys
    • Open space management plans
    • Compliance with lisencing conditions
    • Detection of pollutants
    • Use of plants
    • Remediation of a polluted site
  4. Plants, Soils and Climate
    • Natural conditions andplants distribution
    • Climate classification
    • Examples: climate in the UK, climate in Australia
    • Meteorological data
    • Plant distribution
    • Geographic location
    • Rainfall
    • Evapouration
    • Effective rainfall
    • Circulation features
    • The walker circulation
    • Southern oscillation
    • El nino
    • La Nina
    • GAIA theory
    • Carbon dioxide cycle
    • Wind descriptions
    • Soil problems
    • Erosion
    • Salinity
    • Soil structure decline and soil compaction
    • Soil acidification
    • Build up of dangerous chemicals
  5. Plant Adaptations to Extreme Environments
    • Ecological groups of plants: hydrophyte, xerophyte, mesophyte, halophyte
    • Xeromorphy
    • Common environmental problems when growing plants: foliage burn, pollution, lack of water, frost, shade, humidity, temperature, wind, etc
    • Desert landscapes
    • Xeriscapes
    • Coastal gardens
    • Water plant environments
    • Greenhouse plants
  6. Manipulating Plant Environments
    • Controlling environmental conditions
    • Tolerance levels for different plants
    • Matching plants with their environment
    • Managing light
    • Managing water
    • Protective structures
    • Windbreaks
    • Tree guards
  7. Environmental Conservation
    • Water pollution
    • Soil pollution
    • Atmospheric pollution
    • Effects of horticulture
    • Pesticides
    • Fertilisers
    • Deforestation problemsLoss of agricultural land
    • Loss of biodiversity
    • Environmental weeds
    • The greenhouse effect
    • Other environmental problems affecting plant communities
    • Greenhouse gases
    • Ozone depletion
    • Introduction to recycling
  8. Environmental Organisations, Assessment and Funding
    • Plant conservation
    • Conservation of individual species
    • Conservation organisations
    • Conservation funding

Each lesson culminates in an assignment which is submitted to the school, marked by the school's tutors and returned to you with any relevant suggestions, comments, and if necessary, extra reading.


  • Define the term ecosystem
  • Explain the importance of plants as energy producers within ecosystems
  • Explain basic ecological principles
  • Define the terms open and closed plant communities, semi-natural vegetation, dominant species, climax association.
  • Describe the effects of plant association and competition on the succession of plants
  • Describe how plant communities respond to environmental stresses.
  • Explain how the development, structure and function of an organism depends on the interaction of that organism with its environment
  • Describe the effects of a range of abiotic environmental factors on plant growth and development
  • Explain the importance of monitoring abiotic environmental factors
  • Describe plant modifications to withstand extreme environmental conditions
  • Describe the weather and climate in a particular region.
  • Relate plant distribution, growth and natural selection to soil, geography, weather and climate.
  • State how soil, geography, weather and climate affect the horticulturist’s selection of plants for any specific growing location.
  • Evaluate the use of meteorological records in relation to plant growth and development
  • Define the terms xerophyte, hydrophyte and halophyte
  • Describe the structure and function of xerophytes, hydrophytes and halophytes
  • Describe how xerophytes, hydrophytes and halophytes can be utilised in garden or landscape situations
  • Describe the significance of xeromorphy in temperate zone plants and its importance in the garden or landscape situation.
  • Evaluate the methods by which environmental conditions can be manipulated to improve the growth and development of plants
  • State the factors affecting the choice of plants for garden or landscape sites with extreme conditions
  • Assess the value of using protective structures to grow plants
  • Describe the sources and nature of pollutants and possible effects on plants
  • Describe how the environment may be affected by a range of horticultural practices
  • Explain how planning, environmental assessment and impact analysis may contribute to the conservation process
  • State the major sources of grant aide available to support environmental conservation on horticultural sites
  • Review the role of national and international organisations in the conservation of plants and gardens.

How are Plants Grouped by Ecologists?

There are several different ways plants can be classified or grouped by ecologists

One such way is as outlined below;  based on plant requirements to moisture and salinity.


From the Greek words hydro (water) and phyton (plant). Hydrophytes are aquatic plants. They require constant moisture in which to grow. This ecological group include plants rooted in wet soil, plants partly or wholly submerged in the water, and plants floating in water or on water surface.

High water tables restrict growth of root system. Some hydrophytes develop morphological adaptations to get oxygen to root systems in wet soil that often lacks oxygen.

Submerged leaves usually lack stomata altogether. Floating leaves may have stomata on one side of leaf only. 


From the Greek words xeros (dry) and phyton (plant). This term refers to plants that grow in dry and very dry conditions.

Xerophytes have different morphological and other adaptations to dry conditions especially well seen in desert plants. Some of them have very short span and manage to live their whole live from germination to maturity, flowering and producing seeds within few weeks after an occasional rainfall. These plants usually are small in size and can survive long droughts as seeds.

Some xerophytes develop extremely deep root systems (up to 100 feet or 30 metres) to reach water that might be available deeper in the ground.

Xerophytes often develop leaf modifications to minimize the transpiration. Leaves are often reduced in size and have thick cuticula or covered with epidermal hairs. In some cases leaves are so reduced in size that function of photosynthesis is reassigned to the stem, which become rich in chloroplasts.


From the Greek words meso (middle) and phyton (plant). Mesophytes are plants adapted to moderately wet conditions. This term is not often used as it refers to majority of plants. Most of plants characteristics that we consider “normal” or “usual” are typical for mesophytes.


From the Greek words halo (salt) and phyton (plant). This term refers to plants that prefer or tolerate a high amount of salt in their growing media. Many species of plants on sea beaches are halophytes.

Halophytes have adaptation mechanisms to cope with excessive amount of salt. They maintain acceptable internal salt concentration by excreting excess salts through roots or leaves or by concentrating salts in leaves that later die and drop off.

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