Forests are hard to describe. So much complexity, so much thriving life. Colours, light and forms change with the seasons, and over time. How to fit all that into words or pictures?

The ways to describe a forest are infinite, and each approach will also be influenced by the person making the observations and creating the description. I’m an ecologist, and I work mostly in Australia. So in this article I’m exploring a way to describe our Australian forests (and other vegetation types such as woodlands, shrublands and grasslands), in a nature journal, by using elements of forest structure and life forms, the way ecologists do.

Because this approach emphasizes structural traits (e.g. tree height, canopy cover) and life forms (tree, shrub, grass), you don’t need to identify every plant to come up with a description of the vegetation type. Once you know the vegetation type, this opens the door to learning more about its ecology, including what kinds of animals and plants might live there.

This approach can also be used in a comparative way, e.g. by comparing different places you might visit on a road trip, or even the same place in different seasons, over time, or after a disturbance (e.g. fire, cyclone, grazing).

How it works

  1. First, go to the place you want to describe. This method works best for places in Australia that still have fairly intact native vegetation.

Describe the height of the tallest life forms

  • What are the tallest life forms (e.g. trees, shrubs, grasses)?
  • Draw a large rectangle on your page. This will be used to describe the height of the tallest life form.

Tip: If the tallest life forms are trees, and the trees are a lot taller than they are wide, draw the large rectangle in portrait orientation.

Describing the height of a tall open-forest in Beechmont, Qld. Note the stick figure for scale.

If the tallest life forms are trees, and the trees are wider than they are tall, draw the large rectangle in landscape orientation. Landscape orientation is also better for describing vegetation types with no trees, e.g. shrublands or grasslands.

Landscape-orientation rectangles are better for describing vegetation where the trees are wider than they are tall (woodland, top diagram), or where there are no trees at all (grassland, bottom diagram).
  • Estimate the height of the tallest life form. The easiest way to do this is to get a person to stand next to it, and estimate how many of that person, standing on each others’ heads, would make up the height of the tallest life form. So if the person is 2 metres high, and approximately 10 of that person fit into the height of the tallest life form, then that tallest life form is about 20 metres high. If you’re doing this by yourself, just imagine a 2-metre-tall person standing at the base of the tree.
  • In the large rectangle, draw the tallest life form in profile (side) view. Draw a scale bar on the side and mark the height of the tallest life form. I also like to draw a stick-figure human in the rectangle to give a more pictorial measure of scale.
  • The large rectangle is mostly about describing height of the tallest life forms, but as you can see from my example above, you can also record quite a lot about plant shape, density and arrangement, and also the colours, light and other aspects of the place.

Describe the canopy cover

For this activity, the canopy is the leaf/branch/trunk part of the tallest life forms. You need to estimate what percentage of the sky is shaded by this leaf/branch/trunk part. This can be tricky, and you might get a sore neck looking up and trying to do it. But canopy cover has many important implications for the ecology of a place, so that’s why it’s important to be aware of it. Try to estimate which category the canopy cover of your place fits into, using the options below.

The leaf/branch/trunk part of the tallest life forms covers:

  • Less than 10 percent of the sky
  • 10 – 30 % of the sky
  • 30 – 70 % of the sky
  • 70 – 100 % of the sky

If you want to represent this visually, draw a square on the same page as the large rectangle. Look up, and sketch a portion of what you see in this square. You can also take a photo of the canopy, and draw in the square using the photo as reference.

Looking up at the canopy of a tall open-forest (30-70% canopy cover)

Describe what’s on the ground

Draw another square on your page and look down at your feet. Draw what’s on the ground, from a bird’s eye view.

The ground of the tall open-forest is covered by long strips of bark, shed from the dominant trees (Sydney Blue Gums, Eucalyptus saligna).

Describe leaves, flowers, fruits and any other interesting life forms.

This is optional, but it can really add flavour to your description of a place.

Gumnuts of Eucalyptus saligna , the dominant tree.
Stem and fronds of a tree fern (Cyathea sp.) growing in the tall open-forest.

Determine the structural formation of the vegetation

Use the height of the tallest life form and the canopy cover to work out the structural formation of the vegetation you’re describing, using the table below. (Note that ‘canopy cover’ is equivalent to ‘Foliage projective cover of the tallest stratum’ in the table below).

So for my example above:

  • Tallest life form = trees
  • Height = 40 m
  • Canopy cover = 30 – 70 % of the sky
  • Structural formation = Tall open-forest (Also known as Wet Sclerophyll Forest)

(Note that a tree is defined as a woody plant usually with a single stem; a shrub is a woody plant with many stems arising at or near the base.)

The above table is adapted from Keith (2017) Australian Vegetation, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge; based on Specht, R.L. (1970) Vegetation. In ‘The Australian Environment’, 4th edn. CSIRO Australia and Melbourne University Press, Melbourne. (If you’re after a detailed and up-to-date account of the ecology of Australian vegetation types, Keith (2017) Australian Vegetation is the book to read.)

Here’s another example, describing the forest along the Border Track, Lamington National Park, about 150 m from the trailhead at Binna Burra, Qld:

Describing the forest near Binna Burra

The structural type of this forest is ‘Closed forest’. It’s also known as subtropical rainforest. Here’s some extra flavours of the forest:

Epiphyte in the rainforest
Lush ground-layer herbs (Pollia crispata) in a light-gap in the rainforest

Also add as many notes and written observations as you like.

Why drawings and not photos? I encourage you to draw these things because the act of drawing forces you to slow down and look closely.

Why enclose the drawings in rectangles and squares? I find that if I give myself a small, limited area for drawing, this encourages me to make my drawings simpler, but it also forces me to to zero in on the most important features.

I am still experimenting with this approach to ‘describing a place’ and would love to hear your feedback. Maybe you could even give it a test drive and let me know what you think?

Happy nature journaling!