Warming, Johannes

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Warming, Johannes

Danish Botanist 1841-1924

Johannes Warming was a Danish botanist who is regarded as the founder of plant ecology. The term ecology had been used before, but Warming was the first to describe the fundamental questions that must be addressed in a study of plant ecology and the first to popularize detailed research into the ways plants relate to their environments.

Warming was born November 3, 1841, in Mandø, Denmark. His father was a Lutheran minister there on one of the northern Frisian Islands. Warming loved living there on the coast and he later wrote about his homeland's marshlands and dunes. From his early observations there, he compiled written records that are still important for the study of the ecology of the area's plants today.

Early Research on Structure and Adaption

In his early twenties, while he was a student, Warming became the secretary for a Danish zoologist, P. W. Lund, who was studying fossils in Brazil. Warming accompanied him to Minas Gerais, Brazil, and he spent three years there from 1863 until 1866. While there, Warming carefully studied the environment in that tropical savanna climate. He compiled writings and observations that would be the most thorough examination of a tropical environment at that time. It took Warming nearly twenty-five years to complete the organization and publication of his descriptions of the Brazilian environment. His outstanding work was a detailed record of the plants there; it carefully explained the range of plant geography in the area. At that time, before the study of plant ecology as Warming later introduced it, plant geographers were only beginning to document the regional differences between plants and the effects the surrounding environment might have on plants. Warming then studied plant geography, but he would soon begin the study of plant ecology.

Warming left Brazil to study with respected botanists, first in Munich and then in Bonn, Germany, in 1871. At this time he began detailed research into plant morphology , which was then a popular branch of botany. In studying morphology, he made observations about the functions and origins of different plant structures, particularly floral structures. His work was important to the understanding of the development of the stamen and the ovule, and to research into the general morphology of the flower. He did interesting work with carnivorous plants such as Drosera, which catches insects in its many sticky tentacles. Warming carefully observed these tentacles, trying to determine the mechanism of their movement.

In the late 1870s, Warming became interested in evolution, as had recently been described by Darwin and Lamarck. Warming became a dedicated proponent of the Lamarckian ideas about the causes of evolution. With these ideas in mind, Warming published several more papers about the structure and morphology of different plants and flowers. He classified these plants morphologically and paid special attention to the features of these plants that might help them adapt to their environment. Most of the plants he described were Scandinavian, and he was able to present them in a very clear and easily understood way in his texts. In these early studies, Warming had proved himself to be a careful and thoughtful botanist, and in 1886 he became a professor of botany at the University of Copenhagen. He stayed working there for twenty-five years, until 1911.

Foundations of Plant Community Ecology

Warming went on to develop his interest in plant adaptations, and it led to the publication in 1895 of his work Ecology of Plants or Plantesamfund, as it was originally published. This work was the first plant ecology text and it laid the foundations for the new ecological branch of botanical research, inspiring many botanists to study plant ecology. In it, Warming described his ideas about the types of questions one should ask when examining populations of plants. He wanted to know why each plant had a particular habitat, why different plant species would often occur in communities, and why these communities would have specific characteristic growth patterns. The book was sensational among botanists at the time. It proposed a new way to group and describe associations between plants. Warming's ideas about plant communities had come out of his study of plant geography and the idea of a community of plants was a new term in botany and plant geography. It applied to a group of different species that interacted together to form a well-defined unit, such as a lake or meadow. Warming divided plant communities into four types. These types were based on whether the plants lived in wet, dry, salty, or moderate environments. Water figured closely in his descriptions, as Warming generally considered it to be the most important factor influencing plant communities.

His idea about communities of plants being influenced as units was a brilliant new way to look at plants in general. Warming suggested that botanists examine all the environmental factors that effect the growth of a plant. These factors would affect individual plants, but they would also affect others plants in the area. Together these influences would then affect the ways that the different plants interacted with each other in the community.

Among all his publications, Plantesamfund was probably the most important, as it started a whole new field of study. Warming's ability to discern the details of plants' relationships with their environments influenced all of his writings, but in his book on ecology it brought the desire of ecological research to many other botanists. In the following years, numerous ecology publications appeared. The next century saw the development and growth of the ecological movement, as people began to understand the interactions not just between plants, but between plants, their environments, and the animals (including humans) that encounter them. Warming had seen an explosion of ecological awareness begin by the time he died in Copenhagen on April 2, 1924, and he will be remembered as the founding pioneer of ecological research.

see also Ecology; Ecology, History of; Plant Community Processes; Odum, Eugene.

Jessica P. Penney


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Green, J. Reynolds. A History of Botany, 1860-1900. New York: Russel and Russel, 1967.

Morton, A. G. History of Botanical Science. New York: Academic Press, 1981.

Reed, Howard S. A Short History of the Plant Sciences. New York: Ronald Press Company, 1942.