Vladimir Koppen believed that the natural vegetation native to an area reflects the total physical environment of that place. There are nine vegetation regions in the huge Russian cultural realm. Seven are major east-west vegetal belts. Two are formed by a unique combination of special physical conditions. The total forest area is estimated at 2.9 million square miles (4.7 million square kilometers). These vegetal belts progress from north to south in the order listed below.
The tundra is a belt of distinctive plants and shrubs that forms a continuous strip from the Norwegian border to the Kamchatka Peninsula. Almost everywhere, permafrost (permanently frozen subsoil) lies beneath it. Climatic conditions are too severe for most trees to survive. Tundra vegetation typically consists of mosses, lichens, sedges, hearty grasses, and dwarf bushes. In a few sites, stunted birch trees do grow. Flooded areas and shallow basins in this region are most often swamps. On the southern edge of this belt, the size and number of plants increase as growing conditions improve.
Across a wide band of Russia—more than 4,000 miles (6,437 kilometers) from the Gulf of Finland in the west to the Sea of Okhotsk in the east, and at least 800 miles (1,288 kilometers) wide—is a magnificent, unbroken forest composed of spruce, fir, larch, and pine. This vegetal belt, called the taiga, is bounded on the north by the southern fringe of the tundra.
The mixed and deciduous forests of European Russia and the wooded steppe of western Siberia border the taiga on the south. The most valuable portion of the taiga is in Europe. Here, Norway spruce, Scotch pine, and Siberian fir are the dominant trees. Birch is a common deciduous tree found on both the northern and southern fringes of the taiga. Permafrost conditions in Siberia limit the type of trees that can grow. The Siberian larch, a deciduous needleleaf, is the dominant tree there.
Mixed and Deciduous Forests
South of the taiga, in the western portion of the Russian cultural realm, is a wedge of mixed and deciduous forests. The base of this triangular wedge follows the western borders of Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Belarus, and Ukraine, and its tip is at the crest of the Ural Mountains in Russia. Conifers dominate in the northern sector of this wedge. Broadleaf deciduous trees are dominant in the southern sector. Pine, spruce, fir, ash, elm, linden, birch, oak, beech, and maple are found in the northern European portion of the mixed and deciduous forest.
Tall trees are rare. Another kind of forest is found on the slopes of the Caucasus Mountains. Oak, ash, poplar, pine, and spruce, as well as broadleaf evergreens are found here. In the Far East of Russia, the forest has conifers and hardwoods, along with Japanese and Manchurian species. A hearty northern bamboo is also found in the Far East. The western wedge has been heavily timbered, and much of its forest cleared for agriculture.
Between the mixed and deciduous forests and the taiga of the north, and the semidesert and desert vegetal bands of the south, lies a vast expanse of wooded steppe and steppe grasslands. The wooded steppe is a transition vegetal zone that extends across a narrow band of southern Russia and northern Ukraine into western Siberia. It is composed of small, isolated forests or clumps of oak, birch, and aspen separated by patches of tall grassland. Other than drought-tolerant pine, needleleaf coniferous trees generally are not found in the wooded steppe.
The western or Ukrainian-Russian wooded steppe is characterized by broadleaf deciduous trees. Birch trees characterize the Siberian wooded steppe. Humans have impacted most of the wooded steppe in some way. The beautiful tall grasses have been, for the most part, plowed under. The land is now planted with winter wheat or sunflowers.
South of the wooded steppe is the true steppe, a continuous belt of short grasses that extends from western Russia to southwest Siberia and Kazakhstan. Trees here are confined to river valleys or where planted and maintained. This vegetal belt has warmer, longer summers than the wooded steppe. The frost-free period is longer, but there is less precipitation. Recurrent droughts and fires caused by lightning or humans kill most trees. Short grasses and bunch grasses are the only vegetation that can survive and flourish.Where it is plowed and improperly managed, the soil suffers from wind erosion.
The steppe grassland blends southward into the semidesert. Short grasses, low bunch grasses, and widely spaced bushes slowly replace bunch grasses. As the climate becomes drier and the summer temperatures increase, grasses eventually disappear, and trees are found only in river valleys. Evaporation of the soil's limited moisture draws salt to the surface. A shallow, soft layer of white salt covers swales and other lowland areas. Only salt-tolerant plants can survive these natural evaporation pans.
South of the semidesert is the true desert, where vegetation is scant and species limited. As the climate becomes hotter and drier in summer, year-round grasses disappear. Widely spaced, drought-resistant bushes become dominant. The desert vegetal region gives parts of south-central Russia a characteristic landscape. Winters are cold. Very strong winds mark periods of seasonal change. Dust storms are common.
Where there is soil, desert shrubs that are physiologically equipped to withstand drought through special roots, stems, and leaves grow far apart. Other desert plants depend entirely upon small, erratic amounts of rainfall. They germinate after one rainstorm, produce a beautiful carpet of flowers, and after a short life duration, they die. Desert vegetation has little value for grazing animals.
In stark contrast to the grasslands and deserts of the Volga Delta region are the beautiful subtropical forests of the western Caucasus Black Sea coast. Luxuriant tall evergreens, stately deciduous trees, thick vines, tall firs, and even palm trees and a form of bamboo abound. The climate in the foothills of the Caucasus Mountains near the Black Sea is warm, humid, and very conducive to plant growth.
Scattered throughout Russia are areas of lush, mountainous grasslands. They appear at heights of 3,000 to 4,500 feet (914 to 1,372 meters). From 4,500 feet to 6,000 feet (1,372 to 1,829 meters), these mountain grasslands change with elevation. First, they give way to subalpine vegetation. Then, belts of moss and lichens appear. Finally, only bare outcrops of rock occur. Temperature, moisture, bedrock, relief, and wind determine altitudinal vegetation zones on mountains.
- Weather and climate
- Introducing Russia
- Epilogue: Engaging with Post-Soviet Northern Eurasia
- Central Asia: The Heart of Eurasia
- Eastern Europeans: Ukraine, Belarus, and Moldova
- The Baltics: Europeysky, Not Sovetsky
- The Far East: The Russian Pacific
- Vignette 27.1. Profile of Biysk
- Siberia: Great Land