The boundaries between mangroves and freshwater hammocks in coastal ecotones of South Florida are sharp. Further, previous studies indicate that there is a discontinuity in plant predawn water potentials, with woody plants either showing predawn water potentials reflecting exposure to saline water or exposure to freshwater. This abrupt concurrent change in community type and plant water status suggests that there might be feedback dynamics between vegetation and salinity. A model examining the salinity of the aerated zone of soil overlying a saline body of water, known as the vadose layer, as a function of precipitation, evaporation and plant water uptake is presented here. The model predicts that mixtures of saline and freshwater vegetative species represent unstable states. Depending on the initial vegetation composition, subsequent vegetative change will lead either to patches of mangrove coverage having a high salinity vadose zone or to freshwater hammock coverage having a low salinity vadose zone. Complete or nearly complete coverage by either freshwater or saltwater vegetation represents two stable steady-state points. This model can explain many of the previous observations of vegetation patterns in coastal South Florida as well as observations on the dynamics of vegetation shifts caused by sea level rise and climate change. ?? 2007 Springer Science+Business Media, LLC.