In both the FAO soil classification and the USA soil taxonomy, a histosol is a soil comprised primarily of organic materials. They are defined as containing at least 20 percent organic material to a depth of 40 centimetres. Typically, histosols have very low bulk density and are poorly drained because the organic matter holds water very well. Most are acidic and many are very deficient in major plant nutrients which are washed away in the consistently moist soil.
Histosols form whenever organic matter forms at a more rapid rate than it is destroyed. This occurs because of restricted drainage precluding aerobic decomposition, and the remains of plants and animals remain within the soil. Thus, histosols are very important ecologically because they, and gelisols, store large quantities of organic carbon. If accumulation continues for a long enough period, coal forms.
Most histosols occur in Canada, Scandinavia, the West Siberian Plain, Sumatra, Borneo and New Guinea. Smaller areas are found in other parts of Europe, the Russian Far East (chiefly in Khabarovsk Krai and Amur Oblast), Florida and other areas of permanent swampland. Fossil histosols are known from the earliest extensive land vegetation in the Devonian.
Histosols are generally very difficult to cultivate because of the poor drainage and often low chemical fertility. However, histosols formed on very recent glacial lands can often be very productive when drained and produce high-grade pasture for dairying or beef cattle. They can sometimes be used for fruit if carefully managed, but there is a great risk of the organic matter becoming dry powder and eroding under the influence of drying winds. A tendency towards shrinkage and compaction is also evident with crops.
In USA soil taxonomy, histosols are subdivided into:
A histosol has 40 cm (16 in) or more of the upper 80 cm (32 in.) as organic soil material. Organic soil material has an organic carbon content (by weight) of 12 to 18 percent, or more, depending on the clay content of the soil. These materials include muck (sapric soil material), mucky peat (hemic soil material), or peat (fibric soil material). Aquic conditions or artificial drainage are required (Reference: Florida Department of Environmental Protection)