The current appearance of our forests is the result of long-term development and a significant share can be attributed to human influence. This is evidenced by the fact that many of today's European forests have been based on the agricultural land of now extinct villages. The remains of these medieval villages, of which there are several thousand in Europe's forests, can now be seen mainly in the form of terrain irregularities. A combined scientific team from three Czech workplaces, including the Faculty of Forestry and Wood Sciences of the Czech University of Life Sciences, focused on an unanswered question of whether even short-term settlement could irreversibly change soil properties and thus species composition of plant vegetation. Another question was whether it is possible to use the species composition of plants to determine the earlier arrangement of buildings or the way of land use in these centuries-abandoned villages.
To answer these questions, the extinct medieval village of Kří (Central Bohemian Region) was chosen, a village that was founded around 1357 and whose short existence ended with the plundering of King Sigismund's army in 1420. For the purposes of the study, places where the village square and farmsteads were originally located were identified at the site. These were further divided into several parts according to the purpose of use - garden, backyard, farm buildings and the house itself consisting of a residential area, hall and chamber. Thus, a total of 87 experimental plots were established, where soil samples were taken and the cover of individual species of vascular plants in the herbaceous layer was recorded.
Neutral soil pH and high concentrations of nutrients (organic carbon and potassium) were found in the places where the buildings were originally located. This represents a significant qualitative difference compared to undeveloped areas with poorer acid soils. This may be because people used calcium-rich clay and wood to build houses. The highest concentration of usable phosphorus was measured in the original yards close to the houses. It was common for a large part of village life to take place in these yards - organic waste, wood ash, and manure were collected here. As a result, there is still a higher concentration of phosphorus in the soil in these places. On the contrary, the lowest concentrations of nutrients in the soil were found in the places of the former village square and gardens. The above interpretations are related to the species diversity of plant vegetation, with the least species being observed in former gardens and the most in the places of former buildings, where up to four times higher biodiversity has been documented.
It is therefore clear that the species composition of plants reveals to us the differences in soil properties that are the result of earlier land use. The yellow-flowering buttercup anemone helps to determine the location of former buildings in the forest. A ground elder, an herb-Robert, a hedge woundwort, a touch-me-not balsam or a garlic mustard have a similar indication ability. These species are known for their high nutrient requirements. A very good indicator of extinct villages is also a blue-violet flowering periwinkle, which was planted in the past for its ornamental and healing properties. For former backyards, the main indicator is the common bent or common nettle, which indicates a higher concentration of nutrients. The area of ??the village of Kří is characterized by barren sandy soils, the increased fertility of which reflects human activity in specific places. On the contrary, in places that have not been so much influenced by humans, such as the former village square, there are low-nutrient species such as the false lily, the purple moor grass, the wood fern.
It is already known from previous studies that the settlement of the landscape affected the soil properties and species composition of plant vegetation in today's forests. However, this study showed that even short-term human influence leads to irreversible changes in soil properties, which can be observed 500 years later. Therefore, if we understand the nutrient requirements of basic plant indicators, we can use this knowledge not only to identify current soil properties, but also to reveal the purposes for which our ancestors used the soil.
Mgr. Petr Karlík (* 1976)
Mr. Karlík graduated from the Faculty of Science of Charles University in Prague. He is a member of the Czech Botanical Society and since 2009 he has been working at the Faculty of Forestry and Wood Sciences as a teacher of botanical subjects. He specializes in phytocoenology and the development of vegetation depending on historical factors.
Prepared by Martina Feriancová