Plant Ecology

Learn about the principles of plant ecology. Apply that knowledge to horticulture and the cultivation of plants, and develop a new view on the plant world.

Course CodeBSC305
Fee CodeS3
Duration (approx)100 hours
QualificationStatement of Attainment

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Learn How Plants are Affected by their Surroundings!

Develop a deeper understanding on the principles of plant ecology, why plants are the way they are, their relationships to other plants, animals and the physical world around them.
Anyone working with plats can benefit from this course; from landscapers and permaculturists, to farmers and environmental managers.
Study this for Professional Development
or to simply raise your understanding of the world around you.

Lesson Structure

There are 8 lessons in this course:

  1. Introductory Ecology
  2. Plant Communities
  3. Plants and their Environment
  4. Plants, Soils & Climate
  5. Plant Adaptations to Extreme Environments
  6. Manipulating Plant Environments
  7. Environmental Conservation
  8. Environmental Organisations, Assessment and 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 plant
  • 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 Do Plants Adapt: to Different Environments

Plants have evolved to cope with extreme environments by using both physical and chemical adaptations. Some of these are outlined below:

Water-limited Environments
Geographic areas where water is limited and infrequent are extremely stressful to plants living within these communities. Different plants have adopted a variety of techniques to deal with these conditions.
  • Morphological Adaptations - Certain desert plants have adapted to infrequent rainfalls by increasing their ability to store water. Plants such as Cacti have the ability to store water in their stems, leaves and trunks. These are referred to as “succulent” plants. They also keep their stomata closed during the day and open at night to reduce water loss. Bromeliads and other epiphytic (tree-dwelling) plants also have adapted to limited water availability by collecting water in a well-like structure for future use.
  •  Leaf Adaptations - Other plants adapt to dry conditions by reducing the surface area of the leaves. They can have short, leathery leaves or spiky or leaves that are rolled inwards. These assist in reducing the rate of evaporation from the plant.
  • Root Adaptations - Trees in arid environments, such as the Mallee of Australia have adapted their root structure to suit their environment. By adopting chemical and physical changes, they are able to enhance their water-storing ability following heavy rains. This improves their chances of surviving long drought periods which are a natural feature of the environment.
  • Reproductive Adaptations – The seeds of desert plants have evolved to survive extreme temperatures and drought periods by developing hard coats to protect the embryo. They can remain dormant under the ground or exposed to the air long periods of time prior to germination. Others have developed hooks on the outer coat to assist with dispersal by attaching to passing animal fur or skin. There are also some that will only germinate following an environmental trigger such as the external temperature dropping to a specific level, or exposure to extreme heat from fire.

Light-limited Environments
Closed forests such as rainforests have dense canopies and therefore the amount of light which reaches the forest floor is greatly limited. Many plants have adapted to these environments in different ways such as:
  • Climbing plants – Vines and lianas can climb higher to reach light.
  • Epiphytes – live in the canopy trees where there is greater access to light.
  • Darker foliage – plants that are unable to climb higher to access light may have darker foliage to help them capture and absorb more light.
  • Size-restriction – some plants are able to stall their growth and remain at a small size for significant lengths of time until a light gap becomes available.

Epiphytes in Water-Inundated Environments

Trees such as Mangroves have to cope with intermittent inundation of salt water and soil which is soft and low in oxygen. These are extreme environmental stressors and mangrove plants have developed various methods to adapt to this environment such as:
  • Leaf adaptations – some mangrove plants have glands on their leaves to excrete salt, others can store this salt in large amounts in their leaves. Mangroves can also move their leaves so as to reduce the size of the surface area exposed to the sun. This then reduces the amount of water lost.
  • Root Adaptations – Exposed roots rising vertically from the ground. These not only provide structural support for the tree but also allow for oxygen transfer to roots trapped below the ground. These roots can also halt the movement of salt to other parts of the plant.
  • Reproductive Adaptations – Some mangrove trees produce floating seeds that can be dispersed on the tide to avoid overcrowding. Others are viviparous (the offspring develops while attached to the adult plant). Once the offspring has matured it drops into the water, where it will stay dormant until it reaches soil.


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Marie Beermann

Marie has more than 10 years experience in horticulture and education in both Australia and Germany. Marie's qualifications include B. Sc., M. Sc. Hort., Dip. Bus., Cert. Ldscp.
Rosemary Davies

Leading horticultural expert in Australia. Rosemary trained in Horticultural Applied Science at Melbourne University. Initially she worked with Agriculture Victoria as an extension officer, taught horticulture students, worked on radio with ABC radio (c
Bob James

Horticulturalist, Agriculturalist, Environmental consultant, Businessman and Professional Writer. Over 40 years in industry, Bob has held a wide variety of senior positions in both government and private enterprise. Bob has a Dip. Animal Husb, B.App.Sc.,
John Mason

Parks Manager, Nurseryman, Landscape Designer, Garden Writer and Consultant. Over 40 years experience; working in Victoria, Queensland and the UK. He is one of the most widely published garden writers in the world.
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