Riparian vegetation refers to the plant life and ecosystem that exists alongside a waterway. The surrounding areas of rivers, lakes, ponds, marshes and streams are all considered riparian in nature. Riparian vegetation is an important area of study for conservationists, as the health of the plant life can also give clues to the health of the waterway.
The function of riparian vegetation is not only to provide a verdant bio-system near water; it also acts as a buffer and may protect the health of the body of water. A healthy abundance of plants provides nutrients to the ground and may strengthen the banks, preventing soil erosion and even absorbing harmful runoff from the water itself. If a river is polluted due to agricultural use, livestock, or runoff from factories, the riparian vegetation can help restore or improve the cleanliness of the water.
Many environmental experts consider a thriving riparian system to be vital to the health of any river, stream, or lake. Some recommend that a buffer of land be maintained alongside each bank of a body of water in order to provide adequate land for the vital function of this bio-system. In aquatic landscapes that have been severely damaged due to pollution, forestry, or development, planting trees, shrubs, and grasses along the banks is often the first step in restoring the environment to health.
In addition to protecting the water, riparian vegetation provides a variety of benefits to local wildlife. Trees and shrubs can provide shelter and protection from the elements. In addition, many plants common to the waterway banks are a source of food for many insects and animals. The ability of many bank side plants to absorb polluted runoff can also be greatly beneficial to nearby animals, as clean drinking water is vital to wildlife survival. Wildlife restoration efforts are greatly aided by the presence of a healthy terrestrial ecosystem surrounding bodies of water.
Plants common to riparian systems often require great amounts of water, but are rooted on land. Distinct from aquatic plants, vegetation surrounding a water system must be based in soil but have free access to water, in order to be designated as riparian. Ferns and herbs are often found growing in these areas, as well as many water-loving trees. In North America and much of Europe, maples, elms, and ash trees are often found along waterways. The unique riparian vegetation systems of Australia feature many different types of trees, including wattle and bottlebrush varieties.