Steppes: The Plants and Ecology of the World's Semi-arid Regions

Steppes: The Plants and Ecology of the World's Semi-arid Regions


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Steppes—semi-arid biomes dominated by forbs, grasses, and grass-like species, and characterized by extremes of cold and heat—occupy enormous areas on four continents. Yet these ecosystems are among the least studied on our planet. Given that the birth and evolution of human beings have been so intimately interwoven with steppe regions, it is amazing that so few attempts have been made to compare and quantify the features of these regions. In this ground-breaking volume, five leading voices in horticulture—all staff members of Denver Botanic Gardens—examine the plants, climate, geology, and geography of the world’s steppes: central Asia, central and intermountain North America, Patagonia, and South Africa. Drawing upon their first-hand experience, the writers illuminate the distinctive features of each region, with a particular emphasis on the striking similarities between their floras. Each chapter includes a primer of species of horticultural interest—a rich resource for readers with an interest in steppe plants.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781604694659
Publisher: Timber Press, Incorporated
Publication date: 07/15/2015
Pages: 360
Sales rank: 759,941
Product dimensions: 8.50(w) x 10.10(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Michael Bone has focused his work on seed collection and the study of steppe plants and ecology. Most of his fieldwork has been in western North America, but he has traveled to Central Asia to study plants from the steppes and mountains there.

Dan Johnson travels throughout the West and Southwest in search of unusual and underused native plants for trial in Colorado’s semi-arid steppe climate. His forays to similar regions of the world help further broaden the palette of plants suitable for western gardens. 

Panayoti Kelaidis represents Denver Botanic Gardens in educational, professional, and promotional endeavors as an expert in horticulture, science, and art. He has traveled to South Africa on seven occasions over the last twenty years. He is the recipient of the American Horticultural Society’s 2009 Liberty Hyde Bailey Medal and the 2000 Arthur Hoyt Scott Medal from Swarthmore College.

Mike Kintgen oversees the Alpine Collections at Denver Botanic Gardens including the Rock Alpine Garden and South African Plaza. He has traveled widely both researching and lecturing internationally on Denver Botanic Gardens and its focus on semi-arid steppe and high-elevation floras of the world.

Larry G. Vickerman manages the 700-acre Chatfield site for Denver Botanic Gardens, which features a working farm, historic buildings, native plant gardens, and habitat restorations. He spent 10 years managing a botanical garden in the Great Plains propagating and growing the indigenous plants for introduction into the horticultural industry. A self-described prairie enthusiast, he recently visited mountain and desert steppe environments in Mongolia.

Green inside and out, Denver Botanic Gardens began in 1951 and is considered one of the top botanical gardens in the United States and a pioneer in water conservation. Accredited by the American Alliance of Museums, the Gardens’ living collections encompass specimens from the tropics to the tundra, showcasing a plant palette chosen to thrive in Colorado’s semiarid climate. The Gardens offer world-class art exhibitions, education programs, and important plant conservation and research initiatives. For more information, visit

Read an Excerpt

Introduction: Principal Steppe Regions
Steppes have the allure of the distant and exotic. They are associated in the popular mind (when associated at all) with the steppes of Russia: in the 19th century, when all things Russian were influencing European thought and culture (and vice versa), the Russian “степь” was transliterated as “steppe,” a word corresponding to our “prairie.” In Russia, the word was first utilized to describe the grasslands of west-central Russia proper (and neighboring countries once part of the Soviet Union, such as Ukraine and Moldova), extending from the region of Moldavia in eastern Europe at its westernmost extension, in a broad band around the Black Sea and Caucasus. This region in Russia is very similar climatically and culturally to the prairie and plains regions in North America; indeed, steppe supports the bulk of grain production in both continents.

This original grassy version of steppe has accrued a quantity of associations. Many classic works of 19th-century Russian literature include the word in their titles—Maxim Gorki’s novella On the Steppes, Ivan Turgenev’s short novel King Lear of the Steppes, Anton Chekhov’s haunting short story “The Steppe.” Steppe manifests itself in German literature in Hermann Hesse’s novel Steppenwolf (in turn adopted as the name of a hugely popular 20th-century rock band). Nikolai Borodin’s haunting In the Steppes of Central Asia, a staple of concert halls and classical music radio, suggests caravans crossing an obscure landscape thousands of miles east of the European grasslands of the Cossacks. In fact, grassland ecosystems fall in a broad latitudinal band that encompasses much of the southern part of the former Soviet Union, between true desert to the south and moister taiga in Siberia proper; and the term “steppe” has come to be applied to a vast swath of Asia—and consequently a wider and more complicated range of climatic extremes.

No climatic region on earth has been more central to the history and peregrinations of humanity. Central Asia was an enormous theater of human prehistory and historical drama: hundreds of khanates and kingdoms arose and vanished on the steppes. Most inhabitants of the region were nomads who left scant trace of their passage. But many steppe tribes settled down, creating cities like Bukhara, Samarkand, and Taraz, leaving behind monuments and archaeological evidence of great artistic interest. In recent decades—thanks mostly to oil and mineral development and general population pressures—humanity is once again invading the steppes. On ecological maps of the world, the steppe biome occupies conspicuous swaths on four continents. And yet it could be argued that steppe—the ecosystem that gave rise to and shaped humanity—remains among the least studied or understood ecosystems on our planet. There has never been a comparative study of the four major steppe ecosystems that constitute the very heart of the four largest continents. This book hopes to fill that gap.
Coming to Terms
What is steppe? There is no easy answer. The term “steppe” is used descriptively for most any temperate grassland or semi-arid shrubland, and by many geographers with specific reference to distinctive ecosystems, throughout the continental portions of both northern and southern hemispheres. “Steppe” has been used as a sort of shorthand to characterize cultural, ecological, edaphic, and phytogeographic phenomena.

Steppe is first and foremost a function of climate, but steppe climates, on all four continents, are a paradox: unlike Mediterranean biomes, for instance, which are often simplistically characterized (wet winters; hot, dry summers), each of the world’s steppe regions constitutes a cline rather than a static state between neighboring biomes. At one end, each steppe region has winter precipitation (like the Mediterranean), while at the other end, rain is concentrated in the summer months. Distinctions between and within the various types of steppe are blurry, constantly shifting over the short term. The Venn diagram here illustrates how steppe overlaps with and relates to neighboring biomes. The border separating steppe from Mediterranean biomes may be stark and abrupt (the Sierra-Cascade crest or the Himalaya, for instance), but the transition between steppe and the other two biomes is often less distinct. In wet years, steppe can approximate the rainfall and humidity of a maritime climate, but in drought cycles the same region may have precipitation levels that approach the aridity of true desert—occasionally for prolonged spells. Variable and extreme weather patterns are characteristic of steppes.

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