Natural Communities of Massachusetts

Naturally occurring plant communities are an invaluable source of insight and inspiration for landscape designers and gardeners. They give us important cues about what species grow well together, and which ones will be well-adapted to specific soil types, hydrologic conditions, and climate. Spending time observing and learning about plant communities is time well spent. And who doesn’t want to go for a walk outdoors? Each community has its own intrinsic beauty, and each offers us a unique opportunity to learn about the interplay of species present— particularly valuable lessons when we design landscapes to evoke a sense of place appropriate to our region.

Plant Communities

In the young field of ecology, the existence of plant communities was recognized over a century ago. At the most basic level, a plant community is a collection of species that are coexisting and interacting with each other in a given space and time. Assemblages of plants that are adapted to similar conditions (soil, moisture, temperature, slope, and even types of disturbance) often recur together across a region. These communities are typically named for their dominant plant species, i.e. ‘oak-hemlock-white pine forest,’ often in combination with a distinguishing feature of their soil or topography, i.e. ‘sandplain grassland.’ In some cases, i.e. ‘kettlehole bog,’ a defining geologic feature provides the most illustrative name.

Of course, not every plant community of the same general type will have exactly the same composition of flora and fauna. Ecosystems are quite dynamic and no two places are exactly the same. Plant species have relationships with one another, with insects and other animals, and very complex soil relationships underlie the entire system. This myriad of connections is, frankly, not well understood. But by continually observing and learning from natural landscapes and their processes, we get better at appreciating their complexity. This, then, informs our own design decisions, allowing us to work with these systems rather than fight against them. See more on the page, An Ecosystem Approach.

White pine-oak plant community.
White pines and oaks frequently characterize woodlands in Southern New England with dry acidic soils. Very often, they are accompanied by the beautiful and hardy Maianthemum canadense, or Canada mayflower, that emerges from under the oak leaves and pine needles each spring.
  • The Natural Communities of Massachusetts

    Many ecologists now use the term natural community when categorizing ecosystems, in recognition that there are many different types of organisms that affect the characteristics of the system. But because of their importance as primary producers, natural communities are still largely classified or named by the dominant plant species present.

    The Massachusetts Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program (NHESP) has described 106 natural communities found in our state. These are divided into three main categories:

    • Terrestrial communities that are not significantly impacted by standing or moving water, like forests and grasslands.
    • Palustrine areas that are shaped by the presence of fresh water, including wetlands, pond shores, and river floodplains.
    • Estuarine environments where salt water mixes with fresh water, from shorelines to tidal shrublands and salt marshes.

    NHESP’s natural community factsheets provide an excellent introductory manual to this diversity of ecosystems across the state. The sheets give us detailed plant lists for each community, outline the geological or topographical features that shape it, and discuss the habitat value it provides for associated fauna. Helpfully, they also list publicly accessible areas of the state where each community is found, giving us all the opportunity to experience them firsthand. Go and explore!

    Natural Community Fact Sheets

  • Understanding Succession
    Sandplain Heath community.

    Natural communities are constantly evolving.

    Typically, they undergo change gradually, such as when a forest grows denser with age, causing the understory to become more deeply shaded. Rapid changes also occur periodically, such as when a hurricane fells a patch of trees and opens the forest to new light.

    This process of ecological succession is quite evident in New England. Our post-agricultural landscape, created with the abandonment of farm fields in the 19th and 20th centuries, led to extensive reforestation throughout the northeast. Nature abhors a vacuum, it is said, and succession happens more rapidly than we often expect. After bare ground is cleared, it is quickly colonized by fast-growing annual plants, soon to be replaced by perennial wildflowers and grasses. Then, early succession shrubs and trees take root. If left unmowed, these sun-loving woody species grow and create the shade that later species require. Eventually, a forest dominated by long-lived tree species will take hold, resulting in a ‘climax’ community that will continue in a fairly stable state until a larger disturbance occurs, such as a hurricane, logging, or clearcutting. At that point, the process begins again.

    Succession happens. Everything we plant contributes to the process, and embracing this constant change is a mark of a wise gardener.