Brief notes on the Classification of Forests


Forests can be classified in different ways and to different degrees of specificity. One such way is in terms of the “biome” in which they exist, combined with leaf longevity of the dominant species (whether they are evergreen or deciduous). Another distinction is whether the forests composed predominantly of broadleaf trees, coniferous (needle-leaved) trees, or mixed.

1. Boreal forests occupy the subarctic zone and are generally evergreen and coniferous.

2. Temperate zones support both broadleaf deciduous forests (e.g., temperate deciduous forest) and evergreen coniferous forests (e.g., temperate coniferous forests and temperate rainforest). Warm temperate zones support broadleaf evergreen forests, including laurel forests.


3. Tropical and subtropical forests include tropical and subtropical moist forests; tropical and subtropical dry forests, and tropical and subtropical coniferous forests.

4. Physiognomy classifies forests based on their overall physical structure or developmental stage (e.g., old growth vs. second growth).

5. Forests can also be classified more specifically based on the climate and the dominant tree species present, resulting in numerous different forest types (e.g., ponderosa pine/Doughts-fir forest).

A number of global forest classification systems have been proposed but none has gained universal acceptance. This system divides the world’s forest into 26 major types, which reflect climatic zones as well as the principal types of trees. These 26 major types can be reclassified into 6 broader categories:


1. Temperate Needleleaf

Temperate Needleleaf forests mostly occupy the higher latitude regions of the northern hemisphere, as well as high altitude zones and some warm temperate areas, especially on nutrient- poor or otherwise unfavourable soils. These forests are composed entirely, or nearly so, of coniferous species (Coniferophyta).

In the Northern Hemisphere pines Pinus, spruces Picea, larches Larix, silver firs Abies, Douglas firs Pseudotsuga and hemlocks Tsuga, make up the canopy, but other taxa are also important. In the southern hemisphere most coniferous trees, members of the Araucariaceae and Podocarpaceae, occur in mixtures with broadleaf species that are classed as broadleaf and mixed forests. In the southern hemisphere most coniferous trees, members of the Araucariaceae and Podocarpaceae, occur in mixtures with broadleaf species that are classed as broadleaf and mixed forests.

2. Temperate Broadleaf and Mixed


Temperate broadleaf and mixed forests include a substantial component of trees in the Anthophyta. They are generally characteristic of the warmer temperate latitudes, but extend to cool temperate ones, particularly in the southern hemisphere.

They include such forest types as the mixed deciduous forests of the USA and their counterparts in China and Japan, the broadleaf evergreen rain forests of Japan, Chile and Tasmania, the sclerophyllous forests of Australia, the Mediterranean and California, and the southern beech Nothofagus forests of Chile and New Zealand.

3. Tropical Moist

Tropical moist forests include many different forest types. The best known and most extensive are the lowland evergreen broadleaf rainforests include, for example: the seasonally inundated varzea and igapo forests and the terra firme forests of the Amazon Basin; the peat forests and moist dipterocarp forests of Southeast Asia; and the high forests of the Congo Basin.


The forests of tropical mountains are also included in this broad category, generally divided into upper and lower montane formations on the basis of their physiognomy, which varies with altitude.

The montane forests include cloud forest, those forests at middle to high altitude, which derive a significant part of their water budget from cloud, and support a rich abundance of vascular and nonvascular epiphytes. Mangrove forests also fall within this broad category, as do most of the tropical coniferous forests of Central America.

4. Tropical Dry

Tropical dry forests are characteristic of areas in the tropics affected by seasonal drought. The seasonality of rainfall is usually reflected in the deciduousness of the forest canopy, with most trees being leafless for several months of the year. However, under some conditions, e.g., less fertile soils or less predictable drought regimes, the proportion of evergreen species increases and the forests are characterised as “sclerophyllous.” Thorn forest, a dense forest of low stature with a high frequency of thorny or spiny species, is found where drought is prolonged, and especially where grazing animals are plentiful. On very poor soils, and especially where fire is a recurrent phenomenon.


5. Sparse Trees and Parkland

Sparse trees and parkland are forests with open canopies of 10-30 per cent crown cover. They occur principally in areas of transition from forested to non-forested landscapes. The two major zones in which these ecosystems occur are in the boreal region and in the seasonally dry tropics.

At high latitudes, north of the main zone of boreal forest or taiga, growing conditions are not adequate to maintain a continuous closed forest cover, so tree cover is both sparse and discontinuous. This vegetation is variously called open taiga, open lichen woodland, and forest tundra. It is species-poor, has high bryophyte cover, and is frequently affected by fire.

6. Forest Plantations

Forest plantations, generally intended for the production of timber and pulpwood increase the total area of forest worldwide. Commonly mono-specific and/or composed of introduced tree species, these ecosystems are not generally important as habitat for native biodiversity.

However, they can be managed in ways that enhance their biodiversity protection functions and they are important providers of ecosystem services such as maintaining nutrient capital, protecting watersheds and soil structure as well as storing carbon. They may also play an important role in alleviating pressure on natural forests for timber and fuelwood production.

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