As a non-native speaker, I'm struggling to describe environments comprehensibly and detailedly.

The following picture shows typical ground in a forest, and I would most likely call it earth or soil.

enter image description here

But how would one describe the following coarse, stony ground that can occur in certain similar surroundings — forestland, that is, even though less densely covered.

enter image description here

This question is not necessarily limited to this type of ground. I'm looking for terms to enhance the variety with which I can describe land.


The first image does not appear to show a soil at all, but a 'needle carpet' or 'carpet of needles'.

For examples of the term in use, see here: in describing Hemlock Forest in Nova Scotia

The forest floor is typically needle carpet with low moss coverage

or talking about Peat Bog restoration

One year later, Sphagnum cover had increased, with S. cuspidatum present in flooded ditches, S. capillifolium and S. recurvum in the damper microsites formed by the plough furrows, and S. tenellum colonising some areas of bare peat and of the conifer needle carpet which covered the previously forested ground (Brooks and Stoneman, 1997b)

Your second example is, again, barely soil at all, it looks to have been subject to erosion, from walkers and water flow. It has a high mineral/rock content and next to no humous or biological matter. Looking to the side where there is vegetation, I would expect that this is at altitude, where the growing season is shorter, and a thin, fragile topsoil layer has been lost - exposing the stony subsoil.

Soil develops in layers, biological matter is in the upper layer where worms and insects move, plants grow and leaf litter falls (but leaf litter isn't part of soil until it has begun to decay and be incorporated).

Activity of roots and soil fauna mix and mingle the biological matter with the mineral layer which is formed from decaying bedrock, or which has been deposited by geological processes.

Soil therefore has 'horizons' defined by the degree of mixing of mineral and biological elements.The soil shown would probably be below the topsoil and therefore be 'regolith'

Regolith on Earth originates from weathering and biological processes; if it contains a significant proportion of biological compounds it is more conventionally referred to as soil. People also call various types of earthly regolith by such names as dirt, dust, gravel, sand, and (when wet) mud.

Note that 'regolith' is a technical term and most people wouldn't use it. As the wikipedia article notes people use much looser terms. Not all terms are used across all forms of English either. A British English speaker would not call soil 'dirt' unless it has been transferred to a surface or other location from which it then needed to be cleaned. ie It's soil in your garden but dirt on your shirt.

Personally, as a British English speaker, I would call the exposed soil in the second image 'bare earth', and only describe it as 'mineral' or 'without organic matter' if there was a pressing reason to be more specific.

  • +1, but, merriam-webster.com/dictionary/mineral%20soil. Mineral soil is the normal term used by ecologists and laymen alike. That is a bit too dirty looking for regolith, IMO. – Phil Sweet Apr 15 '17 at 14:00
  • 1
    Again, speaking for my experience of British-english, I would not expect to hear 'mineral soil' in general use. From what I can see online, most uses of 'Mineral soil' are technical and it is a term I was introduced to in a technical sphere. The M-W definition of Mineral soil has a lot of overlap with the wikipedia definition of regolith in that both require organic material to be minimal. I'm not very adept with ngram, but if you can source something which backs up US lay-usage I'd be happy for you to edit accordingly. – Spagirl Apr 15 '17 at 14:29
  • Re it being 'too dirty looking', there is obviously a limit to interpretation possible from a photograph; and I am no doubt bringing my experience of British upland soils to mine. But use of 'dirty' is interesting, by that do you mean something like 'soil-like' or 'with organic matter'? To me 'dirty' pretty much just means unclean. – Spagirl Apr 15 '17 at 14:33
  • I was sort of suggesting dirt as an answer, too. I'm not sure where trail maintenance falls in technical sphere, but as volunteers, everyone got a few minutes of orientation on the projects and the term came up. (okay, sometimes you just get lucky - volunteervacations.americanhiking.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/… - see first entry. – Phil Sweet Apr 15 '17 at 14:40
  • I think that British and American common terms may be sufficiently distinct that they merit you doing an answer. I don't use the terms the same way you do and think they would be better explained by an American-English speaker. I've never make an answer community wiki before, do you think ti would be worth doing to this one to allow folks to chip in with common terms? – Spagirl Apr 15 '17 at 14:58

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.