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Why Don’t Trees Grow in Meadows?

small river running through summer meadow
Shairaa/Shutterstock

Have you ever wondered what the world looked like before human civilization?

You might picture a sea of trees where a sea of buildings now stands. You could imagine rerouted rivers going back to their original winding paths. And you might envision today’s farmlands occupied by natural forests and meadows instead.

But would those meadows exist without human intervention? Or are they, too, a product of civilization? If we all disappeared tomorrow, would trees take over every meadow on the planet?

No, they wouldn’t: meadows existed long before humans arrived. Many natural factors keep trees from growing in meadows. However, human activity also influences this natural system—let’s take a closer look at how it works.

What Creates Meadows?

The answer to “Why don’t trees grow in meadows?” is simple: something is preventing them from doing so.

If given the opportunity, trees will spread as far as possible, eliminating nearby meadows. But some factors, both natural and humanmade, can block trees from taking over a meadow. Here are the main things that keep meadows free from invading trees.

Grazing Animals

If animals graze an area heavily, trees will have a hard time taking hold. Grasses have short lifespans but can regrow quickly after grazing. Young trees, however, can’t bounce back fast enough to establish a forest if large grazing animals are present. Those animals can be wild or domesticated—the effect is the same.

Natural Damage to Trees

If disease, pests, fire, or other factors kill off trees in a large area, a meadow can develop. However, these meadows don’t last forever.

If you’ve ever seen a natural area starting to regrow after a wildfire, you’ll notice that grasses and small plants are the first things to pop out of the ground. This can create a meadow—at least for a while. However, unless animals or other factors exist to prevent tree regrowth, the forest will likely establish itself again before long.

Forest fires are a healthy, natural part of the ecosystem. When one meadow returns to the forest, a fire elsewhere will create a new meadow. These meadows are natural and healthy, even though they’re temporary.

Flooding

When an area gets flooded, trees can’t thrive. However, enough plants may grow back in the area to establish a wet meadow.

This flooding can happen due to human activity, but it can also be the result of nature. For example, beavers often flood large swaths of land when they build dams, which can turn a forest into a wet meadow.

Climate

If you want the best chance of spotting a meadow that exists purely for natural reasons, head to the mountains. Mountain meadows have long existed independent of human activity. Where it’s too cold or snowy for trees to grow, meadow grasses and flowers can thrive.

However, climate change is causing these natural meadows to get overrun by trees. In places where grazing animal populations have decreased, those meadows are disappearing even faster. And efforts to prevent natural fires further encourage trees to take over where mountain meadows should be. Some researchers believe that mountain meadows are at risk of disappearing altogether.

Human Desire

Finally, people sometimes deliberately create meadows where there are none. For example, a meadow can offer a natural, low-maintenance, environmentally-friendly alternative to a lawn. Through human intervention, a meadow can be maintained even when trees try to grow back.

Whether natural or humanmade, meadows are beautiful and promote important ecological diversity. Although trees will always try to take over, a combination of natural factors and human intervention can keep meadows thriving where they belong.

Elyse Hauser Elyse Hauser
Elyse Hauser is a Seattle-based writer and editor with a Master's in Writing Studies from Saint Joseph's University. Her work has appeared in publications like Racked, Vine Leaves Literary Journal, and Rum Punch Press. She was awarded a 2017 Writing Between the Vines residency.  Read Full Bio »