Poland boasts the greatest plant diversity and wealth of forest biocoenoses in Central Europe. This is mainly due to its lowland location and moderate, transitory climate.
Diversity of plants
The composition of Poland's contemporary flora is a result of climatic changes and the diffusion of species in the postglacial period. There are over 2300 species of vascular plants, about 600 mosses, 250 liverworts, and 1600 lichens.
Since there are no natural barriers in the east and west that might hinder plant and animal migrations, most vascular plants in Poland are transitory species. They account for about 60 percent of the entire flora and include trees such as the common oak, black alder, common elm, European white elm, white willow and small-leaved lime.
Most vascular plants are species typical of various geographical areas. You can find here Euroasian and North American plants such as the red bilberry; Arctic and boreal such as the dwarf birch; Central European such as the fir, beech and many others; West European such as the heath; Black Sea and Hungarian such as the dwarf cherry and the yellow blooming spring adonis, common for dry meadows on limestone. There are few Mediterranean species, though.
For about 40 percent of species, Poland is the limit of occurrence. It is the northern limit for the broad-leaved lime, European larch and black poplar; the eastern and north-eastern limit for Atlantic and sub-Atlantic plants such as the beech, sycamore, field maple, sessile oak and crossed-leaved heath, characteristic of the Baltic coastland; the southern limit for the Swedish whitebeam, found only in the belt of coastal lowlands, and rare northern plants such as the dward birch and Lapland willow. For about 10 percent of species, Poland is the western limit.
Poland has few endemic species, found largely in the Carpathians, where they include the Poa nobilis and Euphrasia tatrae. Indigenous to the Babia Gora area is the laserwort (Laserpitium archangelica), found near the tree line and reaching up to two metres. In the Pieniny you can see the unique Chrysanthemum zawadzkii. In the Sudetes, only the Karkonosze range has some endemic violets and saxifrages.
In the rest of the country, there are about 15 endemic species and subspecies including the Polish larch, black birch and Ojcow birch. Some endemic species and species found only locally, outside their normal range, are relicts (survivors from distant epochs). These include the violet larkspur, Dianthus sylvestris, Saxifraga wahlenbergii, Lapland willow and dwarf birch. The best known relict species is the beautiful Arolla pine, found only in the Tatras. The Pontic azalea is an example of a steppe relict.
Carrs that often cover marshlands, valley edges and lake shores are dominated by the black alder. The undergrowth in shady carrs, taking advantage of the abundance of water, rise up to several metres. This is also the place to see the royal fern, Poland's biggest fern. Riverside carrs are rare, found in the Masurian Lake District and the valleys of the greatest rivers: the Vistula, Odra and Warta.
Unique and scientifically priceless is the Biebrza marshland, the largest swathe of land in lowland Europe west of the Bug River, that has survived almost untouched by civilization. The area abounds in plant species typical of north Europe and relicts from the Ice Age, including a variety of sedges. The unusual landscape of this area is shaped by the Biebrza, the only European river that has retained its natural character for the entire length. Its valley consists of three marshland basins separated by bottlenecks. Low gradient and a levee produced by the Narew, which is fed by the Biebrza, make the river flow very slowly. It meanders and in early spring floods over a several-kilometre-wide area, sometimes returning to its channel only by late summer. The vast flood plain is dotted only with sparse knolls, clumps of bushes, trees and haystacks sticking out of water. The most diversified central basin contains the Czerwone Bagno (Red Swamp), one of Poland's most extensive transitional peat swamps, covered with a century-old marshy coniferous forest. At its edge, the only marshy birch forests in the country stretch. The northern basin sees smaller floods and is the habitat of many rare plants. In the southern basin, the Biebrza meanders widely and its flow is the slowest.
Coniferous, broadleaved and mixed
In the past, Poland's landscape was dominated by vast forests; today they cover only about 28 percent of the country's territory, usually with their species composition changed over centuries. The most extensive woodlands are in the Carpathians, the Sudetes and the lakeland belt. The least wooded region is central Poland. The old Mazovian forests have survived only in small patches on barren dunes and marshes.
Originally, Polish woods were dominated by broadleaved species: willows and poplars in river valleys, alders on swamps, and mixed forests dominated by oaks, hornbeams and limes in other parts of the country. In some regions these dry-ground forests may also feature beeches, spruces and sycamores. This diversity of tree species supports rich wildlife.
Post-war afforestation consisted mainly in planting conifers. Poor, sandy soils, unsuitable for cereal crops, were afforested with pines which now cover 57,000 sq km, compared with just 3,300 sq km of beeches and 2,000 sq km of firs. Conifers have low resistance to pollution and, especially in one-species forests, pests.
Over the last 20 years the total area of Poland's forests has remained roughly the same. Two positive trends are the increasing share of broadleaved trees and the growing area of relatively old forests.
Most forests are coniferous, with a predominance of pines (about 70 percent) and spruces. The pine can grow on various soils and in extremely varied water conditions. It also has great endurance to weather. It appeared in this part of Europe after the Ice Age and has survived all climatic changes; only in the mountains was it surpassed by the spruce, fir and beech. Pine forests have a characteristic undergrowth with berry bushes, junipers and a profusion of mosses and lichens. The spruce, which is very tolerant of harsh climate, may be found chiefly in the mountains and the north-east where it makes dense forests with the undergrowth often limited to mosses, ferns and berry bushes.
Coniferous forests account for about 70 percent of Poland's woods. The largest of them are: the Puszcza Augustowska (Augustow Forest), Puszcza Piska (Pisz Forest), Puszcza Notecka (Notec Forest), Bory Tucholskie (Tuchola Forest) and Bory Dolnoslaskie (Lower Silesia Forest). In some areas, patches of mixed forests have survived. In the lakelands, these are dominated by the beech, while the larch is the prevailing tree in the mountains.
Better soil supports broadleaved forests, mainly with trees such as oaks and hornbeams or beeches. A good example of an oak-hornbeam forest can be found in Bialowieza and Kampinos. In the Swietokrzyskie Mountains you can see fir-beech forests.
Forests with beeches occur in lower mountains, in the Pomeranian Lake District, western part of the Masurian Lake District, the Lublin Upland and in the Bieszczady. The finest beech forests are the Lasy Kadynskie (Kadyny Forest) near Elblag and the Puszcza Bukowa (Beech Forest) near Szczecin.
Beech and oak-hornbeam forests look particularly attractive in the spring when most plants bloom. As they have to produce seeds before the trees shoot out leaves and obscure the sun, as soon as it becomes warm and sunny, the forest bottom virtually explodes with life. Colourful anemones, violets and liverworts all spring up at the same time.
A true gem in west Poland is the Puszcza Piaskowa (Piasek Forest), situated in the Odra valley near Cedynia and at the western fringes of the Mysliborz Lake District. Named after the village of Piasek, it is a vestige of the ancient woods that once stretched along the Odra. More than half of its trees are broadleaved species including 250-300 years old oaks, with some of them living up to 350-400 years. What makes its flora unique is also thermophilous grasses and shrubs.
Poland's most valuable forest
Poland boasts the last patch of the primeval forest that covered most European lowlands a thousand years ago. This is the Bialowieza Forest (Puszcza Bialowieska), straddling the border of Poland and Belarus, on the Bielska Plain, between the Narewka and Lesna rivers, the latter being a tributary of the Bug. Its Polish part covers about 580 sq km.
Some 500 years ago Polish kings banned logging and settling in this area to preserve it as hunting grounds. Although the forest was periodically exploited in the 19th century and in the inter-war period, it has retained its character of a primeval lowland forest, which is unique in Europe.
In 1921 the most valuable part of the forest was put under protection and designated a strict natural reserve. Three years later it was transformed into a national park, the oldest of the 23 national parks in Poland. It encompasses about 15 percent of the forest's area. In 1977 the Bialowieza National Park became a World Biosphere Reserve and two years later it was recognised by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. It is the only site in Poland that has entered both lists. In Europe, only one more national park, Montenegro's Durmitor, is also listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. For this reason, both parks are regarded as "Yellowstones of Europe". The Bialowieza National Park has also received the European Diploma, awarded by the Council of Europe to the continent's outstanding natural sites.
Two-thirds of the most valuable patch of the forest are covered by broadleaved trees, mainly oaks and hornbeams. Carrs and marshy meadows in wet areas, flooded for several months a year, are dominated by the black alder and ash. Pine, spruce and mixed forests stretch on dry grounds. Depending on the soil, there are altogether as many as about 20 types of forest, supplemented by marshes, peat bogs and numerous streams.
Species diversity of dry-ground woods attests to the primeval nature of the Bialowieza forest. The tallest trees are spruces. Below you can see the crowns of oaks, limes and maples that make up the proper forest canopy. The lowest trees are ashes. Ancient giants grow side by side with saplings shooting up between old trunks that fell to the ground and left them some room and access to the sun's rays. Decaying trees are distinctive feature of the park. They account for over 10 percent of the entire stand within the strict reserve. The organic matter produced during their decomposition is used by the new generations of plants.
For 80 years virtually no work has been conducted in the strictly protected area. The average age of its trees is 126 years, compared with 72 years in the rest of the forest and 54 years in Poland. Almost 1600 trees have reached a size that qualifies them as nature monuments.
The Bialowieza Forest is the southern and western limit for many boreal plant and animal species, characteristic of the taiga. There are 8500 species of insects, 250 birds, 54 mammals, over 1000 species of vascular plants, 200 mosses and about 300 lichens. Particularly numerous are the fungi (some 3000 species), which are largely relicts of the primeval forest and tend to grow on decaying trees.
Apart from the Bialowieza Forest, a few other woods have survived in the north-eastern part of Poland as remnants of the vast forests that once extended over the borderlands of medieval Prussia, Lithuania and Poland. The largest of them, north of Bialowieza, are the Augustow Forest (Puszcza Augustowska; 1140 sq km), which, through natural restocking, has become a true wilderness; and the Knyszyn Forest (Puszcza Knyszynska; 839 sq km), with natural pine and pine-spruce stands and peatland vegetation.
Stretching across the Russian border, the Romincka Forest is dominated by spruces, typical of northern areas. The forest is noted for its clumps of the protected ostrich ferns. East of Lake Goldap stretches a scenic raised bog with spruces and alders.
In the Pomeranian Lake District, the most extensive wood is the Tuchola Forest (Bory Tucholskie; about 1200 sq km). Exploited for centuries, it has retained little of its original character and is now dominated by man-introduced pine monocultures. One enclave of primeval vegetation is the Wierzchlas yew reserve. This concentration of yews, Poland's biggest, comprises a fragment of the ancient Pomeranian Forest with some four thousand trees aged up to 600 years. Remnants of the primeval mixed forest are woods with a predominance of pines interspersed with wild serviceberries (protected). There are also many glacial relicts including the shrubby birch and twin flower.
Assemblages of aquatic vegetation are of great value. Lobelia lakes, extremely rare in Poland and Europe, are named after the water lobelia, which has white, tiny (up to 1cm) flowers rising above crystal-clean water. This plant requires clean and soft water with free carbon dioxide. Lobelias are usually accompanied by other plant species, equally rare in the country. Only 150 lobelia lakes have survived in Poland, almost all of them situated in the Pomeranian Lake District.
The Tuchola Forest abounds in assemblages of rare peatland and wetland vegetation. On the so-called dystrophic lakes (which exist in coniferous woods with vegetation adapted to acidic waters), peculiar skins of peatmosses and marsh teas occur, which sag under your feet.
In the Malopolska Upland, larger forest expanses can be found in the Swietokrzyskie Mountains, where you can relax under the rustling firs in the magnificent Swietokrzyska Forest, also knows as the Fir Forest (Puszcza Jodlowa). Natural stands cover about 63 percent of its area. Diversified geology results in a variety of habitats which support almost all tree species that occur in Poland: firs, beeches, two oak varieties, spruces, two lime varieties, yews and pines. Rare plants in the forest include a number of orchids, the marsh gentian and globe flower. Among the lush vegetation you can find raspberries, blackberries, large swathes of impressive ferns and impassable thickets of young firs or beeches.
The Swietokrzyska Forest is the cradle of the Polish yew. Gora Chelmowa near Nowa Slupia has Poland's largest concentration of this tree, which lives in its natural state only in this part of the country. The biggest and oldest yews in this place exceed five metres in circumference.
East of the Malopolska Upland, fine fir-beech stands have survived in Roztocze, an undulating upland cut by many gorges. Vast wooded stretches can be found in the Carpathian Depression; the largest of them is the Sol Forest (Puszcza Solska; 1240 sq km) east of the San valley. Relatively extensive woods occur in the Silesian Lowland. The biggest of them, and the biggest in Poland, is the Bory Dolnoslaskie (Lower Silesia Forest; over 1500 sq km) on sandy alluvial cones of Sudetian rivers. Most of the forest, however, is made up of pine plantations, with rather limited flora and fauna.
The West Carpathians are well wooded only in some parts, notably in the Beskid Slaski, Beskid Zywiecki and Beskid Sadecki. The Bieszczady retains its thick forest coat. The Sudetian forests were substantially destroyed at the end of the 1970s and the beginning of the 1980s. In the Karkonosze and the Izerskie Mountains, acid rains killed trees over vast areas. The disaster was caused by a particular pattern of winds which brought air pollution from nearby brown-coal power plants in Poland, Germany and Czechoslovakia. Weakened by the rains, the trees fell victim to pests which completed the work of destruction. Today, attempts are being made to re-create the natural spruce-fir, beech and spruce forests in the disaster area.
Poland's meadows are predominantly man-made creations that usually replaced the felled forests. The broad valleys of the Biebrza and Narew, cut by ice-marginal streams, and the Lubuskie Lake District contain marshland meadows. Perhaps the most spectacular are the meadows in the Bieszczady - known as poloniny - and in the Tatras, where they are called hale. In spring they cover with thousands of blooming crocuses, indigenous to the Carpathians and brought here from the Balkans by wandering shepherds whose sheep spread the seeds that got into their wool.
As you go up above sea level, the climate changes gradually and so does the plant cover. The highest mountains in Poland, the Tatras, have as many as five distinct vegetation belts. The most extensive of them is the lower regiel (up to 1250m) with predominantly man-planted spruce forests. The upper regiel (up to 1500m) is dominated by spruce forests that have largely retained their original character. Near its upper limit you can see the European larch, mountain ash, Silesian willow, Carpathian birch and - covering steep slopes - spruce cliff forests. Another characteristic species is the Arolla pine, the queen of the Tatra forests, distinguished by a widely rounded crown and dark green needles. Native to the Altai Mountains, it came to Poland during the Ice Age.
Above the upper regiel is the belt of dwarf mountain pines (1500-1800m) whose dense scrub may be up to three metres high. Their tough, strong branches fill up the spaces between rocks and trail over stones, their flexibility making them resistant to avalanches. Dwarf mountain pines play a major role in protecting the forests by entrapping falling rocks, slowing down flash floods and preventing erosion. As you go up, the scrub becomes lower and lower. In the upper parts of this belt, it is less than a metre high.
In terms of unique nature, the most valuable are the two uppermost zones: alpine pastures (1800-2250m), known as hale, and rock towers (subnival zone) which in Poland can be found only in the Tatras. Of the 430 mountain plants that occur in the country, the Tatras have as many as 400, and half of this number live mainly in the alpine pastures and the subnival zone. The latter contains over 100 species of flowering plants including the pink-blooming catchfly which grows on rocks in moss-like cushions capable of resisting strong winds. There are also many species of saxifrages, mosses and rock lichens. The Tatras are noted for a profusion of lichens, the highest in the country (about 700 species).
The Tatras also have the biggest number of endemic plants in Poland and a variety of relicts. The best known endemic species are the Saxifraga wahlenbergii, Cochlearia tatrae, larkspur (with beautiful violet, jug-shaped flowers), Poa granitica and Poa nobilis. Tens of species are endemic to the Carpathians.
Similar vegetation belts can be identified in the Karkonosze, the highest range in the Sudetes. Natural beech and mixed forests of the lower regiel (500-1000m) have been largely replaced by man-planted spruce monocultures. The upper regiel (up to 1250m) is a zone of spruce forests with some sycamores and mountain ashes, their undergrowth made up of heathers and grasses. In more humid areas you can find luxuriant herbs. Above there is the belt of dwarf mountain pines (1250-1450m) which occur in the Sudetes only in the Karkonosze range and the Snieznik Massif (1425m).
The flattened peak areas contain high-mountain peat bogs. The best known of them stretches below Mt Sniezka (1602m) in the Karkonosze, where dwarf mountain pines harbour tiny pools with marshland plants which are glacial relicts typical of the tundra. Around the pools, Lapland willows make up a dense thicket. Because of its landscape and characteristic flora, the ridge known as Rownia pod Sniezka is sometimes called the Karkonosze tundra. The alpine belt (above 1500m) is dominated by rock vegetation: grasses, mosses and lichens. Generally, the Karkonosze has rather poor plant cover, for which the granite bedrock is responsible. There are a few endemic species including Saxifraga moschata subs. basaltica and Sorubs sudetica as well as glacial relicts such as Saxifraga nivalis and the semiparasitic Pedicularis sudetica which takes water with mineral salts from other plants. Outside the Karkonosze, you can see in only in the Arctic.
The Bieszczady has a peculiar arrangement of vegetation. The range's distinctive feature is a low tree line (1200-1220m above sea level) and lack of the upper forest zone with spruces. The limit is marked only by dwarf beeches and alders which give way to pastures know as poloniny, the biggest attraction of the Bieszczady. These reach up to 1346m, which is the height of the highest mount, Tarnica. The meadows are covered with bilberry bushes and grasses. Only there can you find over 20 rare East Carpathian species such as the Silene dubia and Melampyrum saxosum, as well as over 70 high-mountain species.
The Bieszczady is one of the few places in Europe where nature has regained terrains once colonized by man. After the war almost all native residents were deported for political reasons and their mountainside fields and meadows are now replaced by a dense beech forest which retains the natural character of beech woods.