This word is rather generic and, in terms of seminatural vegetation, tends to be used to describe almost any community of forbs and grasses that do not grow beneath trees and shrubs. In planting design it has come to be used to describe herbaceous plantings in which the constituent plants mingle in a complex, random fashion. In many countries, ‘meadow’ is used more specifically to describe seminatural communities that are the result of agricultural management, most commonly grazing by domestic animals and cutting for hay. This is, for example, the origin of most meadows in Britain and Europe. Many of these culturally amended sites would originally have been occupied by woodland and, in the absence of grazing or cutting meadows, are invaded by scrub and trees and return to woodland.

Meadow is also used to describe the more ‘natural’ grasslands that occur at high altitude (above the tree line) in many parts of the world. Most of these meadows are grazed, either by wild herbivores, such as deer, as in the sub-alpine meadows of the Rocky Mountains, or by a combination of domesticated animals and wild herbivores, as in the case of the European Alps and the Himalayan chain. Grazing is an important factor in determining the abundance of different species and the appearance of the meadow. Highly palatable plants, such as many grasses, are held in check, thereby promoting less palatable species.

Whilst a number of factors (soil moisture, soil fertility, soil pH and management regime) contribute to shaping species composition of meadows within a given geographical region, soil moisture is probably the single most important factor (Figure 6.2).