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Classification of Wetlands and Deepwater Habitats of the United States

Appendix D

Criteria for Distinguishing Organic Soils from Mineral Soils

The criteria for distinguishing organic soils from mineral soils in the United States (U.S. Soil Conservation Service, Soil Survey Staff 1975:13-14, 65) are quoted here so that those without ready access to a copy of the Soil Taxonomy may employ this information in the classification of wetlands:
For purposes of taxonomy, it is necessary, first, to define the limits that distinguish mineral soil material from organic soil material and, second, to define the minimum part of a soil that should be mineral if the soil is to be classified as a mineral soil.

Nearly all soils contain more than traces of both mineral and organic components in some horizons, but most soils are dominantly one or the other. The horizons that are less than about 20 to 35 percent organic matter by weight have properties that are more nearly those of mineral than of organic soils. Even with this separation, the volume of organic matter at the upper limit exceeds that of the mineral material in the fine-earth fraction.


Mineral soil material either

  1. Is never saturated with water for more than a few days and has <20 percent organic carbon by weight; or
  2. Is saturated with water for long periods or has been artificially drained, and has
    1. Less than 18 percent organic carbon by weight if 60 percent or more of the mineral fraction is clay;
    2. Less than 12 percent organic carbon by weight if the mineral fraction has no clay; or
    3. A proportional content of organic cabon between 12 and 18 percent if the clay content of the mineral fraction is between zero and 60 percent.
Soil material that has more organic carbon than the amounts just given is considered to be organic material.


Most soils are dominantly mineral material, but many mineral soils have horizons of organic material. For simplicity in writing definitions of taxa, a distinction between what is meant by a mineral soil and an organic soil is useful. In a mineral soil, the depth of each horizon is measured from the top of the first horizon of mineral material. In an organic soil, the depth of each horizon is measured from the base of the aerial parts of the growing plants or, if there is no continuous plant cover from the surface of the layer of organic materials. To apply the definitions of many taxa, therefore, one must first decide whether the soil is mineral or organic.

If a soil has both organic and mineral horizons, the relative thickness of the organic and the mineral soil materials must be considered. At some point one must decide that the mineral horizons are more important. This point is arbitrary and depends in part on the nature of the materials. A thick layer of sphagnum has a very low bulk density and contains less organic matter than a thinner layer of well-decomposed muck. It is much easier to measure thickness of layers in the field than it is to determine tons of organic matter per hectare. The definition of a mineral soil, therefore, is based on thickness of the horizons or layers, but the limits of thickness must vary with the kinds of materials. The definition that follows is intended to classify as mineral soils those that have no more organic material than the amount permitted in the histic epipedon, which is defined later in this chapter.

To determine whether a soil is organic or mineral, the thickness of horizons is measured from the surface of the soil whether that is the surface of a mineral or an organic horizon. Thus, any 0 horizon at the surface is considered an organic horizon, if it meets the requirements of organic soil material as defined later, and its thickness is added to that of any other organic horizons to determine the total thickness of organic soil materials.


Mineral soils, in this taxonomy, are soils that meet one of the following requirements:

  1. Mineral soil material <2 mm in diameter (the fine-earth fraction) makes up more than half the thickness of the upper 80 cm (31 in.);
  2. The depth to bedrock is <40 cm and the layer or layers of mineral soil directly above the rock either are 10 cm or more thick or have half or more of the thickness of the overlying organic soil material; or
  3. The depth to bedrock is >40 cm, the mineral soil material immediately above the bedrock is 10 cm or more thick, and either
    1. Organic soil material is <40 cm thick and is decomposed (consisting of hemic or sapric materials as defined later) or has a bulk density of 0.1 or more; or
    2. Organic soil material is <60 cm thick and either is undecomposed sphagnum or moss fibers or has a bulk density that is <0.1.


Organic soil materials and organic soils

  1. Are saturated with water for long periods or are artificially drained and, excluding live roots, (a) have 18 percent or more organic carbon if the mineral fraction is 60 percent or more clay, (b) have 12 percent or more organic carbon if the mineral fraction has no clay, or (c) have a proportional content of organic carbon between 12 and 18 percent if the clay content of the mineral fraction is between zero and 60 percent; or
  2. Are never saturated with water for more than a few days and have 20 percent or more organic carbon.
Item 1 in this definition covers materials that have been called peats and mucks. Item 2 is intended to include what has been called litter or 0 horizons. Not all organic soil materials accumulate in or under water. Leaf litter may rest on a lithic contact and support a forest. The only soil in this situation is organic in the sense that the mineral fraction is appreciably less than half the weight and is only a small percentage of the volume of the soil.


Organic soils (Histosols) are soils that

  1. Have organic soil materials that extend from the surface to one of the following:
    1. A depth within 10 cm or less of a lithic or paralithic contact, provided the thickness of the organic soil materials is more than twice that of the mineral soil above the contact; or
    2. Any depth if the organic soil material rests on fragmental material (gravel, stones, cobbles) and the interstices are filled with organic materials, or rests on a lithic or paralithic contact; or
  2. Have organic materials that have an upper boundary within 40 cm of the surface and
    1. Have one of the following thicknesses:
      1. 60 cm or more if three-fourths or more of the volume is moss fibers or the moist bulk density is <0.1 g per cubic centimeter (6.25 lbs per cubic foot);
      2. 40 cm or more if
        1. The organic soil material is saturated with water for long periods (>6 months) or is artificially drained; and
        2. The organic material consists of sapric or hemic materials or consists of fibric materials that are less than three-fourths moss fibers by volume and have a moist bulk density of 0.1 or more; and
    2. Have organic soil materials that
      1. Do not have a mineral layer as much as 40 cm thick either at the surface or whose upper boundary is within a depth of 40 cm from the surface; and
      2. Do not have mineral layers, taken cumulatively, as thick as 40 cm within the upper 80 cm.
It is a general rule that a soil is classed as an organic soil (Histosol) either if more than half of the upper 80 cm (32 in.) [sic] of soil is organic or if organic soil material of any thickness rests on rock or on fragmental material having interstices filled with organic materials. Soils that do not satisfy the criteria for classification as organic soils are mineral soils.
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