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Ordbog – plantebiotoper

What's the difference between heath, moor, steppe, prairie, savannah, veldt, meadow?

Those terms aren’t always perfectly defined, even amongst botanists/ecologists, but the general consensus is:

Heath is a low shrubland. The dominant plant type is a multi-stemmed woody plant less than 5 metres tall.

It isn’t accurate to say that heath has plenty of grass. Heathland can include grasses and herbs, but those plant forms don’t dominate.

It isn’t accurate to say that heath is more or less flat. Most of the world’s heathlands occupy skeletal or severely leached soils on moderate to steep slopes.

Moor is essentially synonymous with elevated marsh. A marsh is an essentially treeless system that is poorly drained and at least seasonally waterlogged. A moor is just the same but it exists at elevation to the surrounding landscape, as opposed to ‘standard’ marshlands that exist mostly in riparian locales.

Moors can be dominated by grass, but they can also be dominated by forbs, mosses or even heath.

Steppe and prairie are essentially synonymous. They are simply temperate open grasslands.

Being grasslands they are dominated by grass and of course have few tress.

Neither prairie nor step are necessarily flat land, though for various reason they typically are.

Savannah/savanna is the name for a woodland that has a continuous grass layer. Many woodlands and forests have some grass in the ground layer but savanna is distinguished by a complete grass covering that permits regular low intensity fires.

It is in no way accurate to say that savannas have few trees. Tree densities in savannas are often higher than in forests.

The difference is that savanna trees tend to be much smaller and thus produce a much more incomplete canopy cover.

Veldt is a generic Southern African word borrowed from the Flemish word for field. These days it refers to grazing land. That means it may apply to savanna, grassland or to cleared forest land.

Natural veldt is mostly savanna but there are some significant areas of grassland.

Meadow is a very European word for utilised grassland. Meadow can be natural or it can be created through clearing of forest. The word meadow tends to refer to flat land these days because the remaining ‘meadows’ are often hayfields, which are easier to bale mechanically if they are flat. However traditionally meadows were restricted to land less suitable for cropping, and as a result most meadows were on undulating land or hillsides.

Heath and Moor refer to places in England and Scotland.

Steppe, I think, refers to Central Eurasia.

Prairie is the word ascribed to this particular landform in the United States.

Savannah and Veldt, Sub-Saharan Africa.

Meadow, I believe, is different from all of them because it refers to a smaller area.

maquis, which is essentially a heath, but in mediterranean regions;

veldt, which is the African version of prairie;

tundra, which is pretty much the same, but in a cold region where the subsoil remains frozen all year.

It gets confusing because of regionalisms.

We could include scrublands, chaparral, fynbos, swamp woods, taiga, cerrado, monsoon scrub, pampas, open forest, downs, glades and balds as a few further examples of variants on the theme.

The thing is that some of these terms have 'real' meanings and some are purely regionalisms.

prairie is just the name for what would be called steppe in Eurasia or grassveldt in Southern Africa or grass downs in Australia or pampas in south america.

Maquis, fynbos, chaparral and sandstone scrub in Europe, Africa, the US and Australia respectively are just types of Mediterranean heath.


In contrast terms like grassland, taiga, savanna, tundra, heath and moor have fairly specific meanings that aren't regionally variable.

Of course it;s complicated even more because the terms change over time and all the systems blend seamlessly. Consider the term 'savanna' which started out describing closed forests with little grass and has come to be associated with grassy woodlands. And savannas are variously called savannas, savanna woodlands, savanna grasslands, grassy woodlands and open woodlands.

And something like the Utah Great Basin system can be a "Juniper savanna woodland", a " Pinyon plateau heathland" and an "Alpine shrubby grassland" simultaneously, depending on who is discussing it and for what reason.

Don't expect an unambigupous answer when it comes to ecosystem classification.

Not only does every region have its own system but different schools within a country will apply different and overlapping categorisation systems to the same area.

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