In European phytosociology, variable plot sizes are traditionally used for sampling different vegetation types. This practice may generate problems in current vegetation or habitat survey projects based on large data sets, which include relevés made by many authors at different times. In order to determine the extent of variation in plot sizes used in European phytosociology, we collected a data set of 41 174 relevés with an indication of plot size, published in six major European journals focusing on phytosociology from 1970 to 2000. As an additional data set, we took 27 365 relevés from the Czech National Phytosociological Database. From each data set, we calculated basic statistical figures for plot sizes used to sample vegetation of various phytosociological classes.
The results show that in Europe the traditionally used size of vegetation plots is roughly proportional to vegetation height; however, there is a large variation in plot size, both within and among vegetation classes. The effect of variable plot sizes on vegetation analysis and classification is not sufficiently known, but use of standardized plot sizes would be desirable in future projects of vegetation or habitat survey. Based on our analysis, we suggest four plot sizes as possible standards. They are 4 m2 for sampling aquatic vegetation and low-grown herbaceous vegetation, 16 m2 for most grassland, heathland and other herbaceous or low-scrub vegetation types, 50 m2 for scrub, and 200 m2 for woodlands. It has been pointed out that in some situations, sampling in either small or large plots may result in assignment of relevés to different phytosociological classes or habitat types. Therefore defining vegetation and habitat types as scale-dependent concepts is needed.