Woodlands contain layers of plants. Shade-loving herbs grow on the forest floor. In the east, partridgeberries, wintergreen, and wild ginger are among the herbs to look for. In a deciduous forest, they generally bloom early before the leaves have emerged. Many of these herbs have food or medicinal value.
Woody shrubs make up the next layer. They are also early bloomers, usually after the herbs. Many of these are berry bushes, including blueberries and huckleberries, and may produce berries, especially in the late summer, which is when many foragers look for them. But the most abundant producers are those on the edge that receive more light.
What is the understory?
The understory of the forest is the layer of trees and shrubs that grow beneath the canopy. These plants are shade tolerant and include small trees that even when mature, are towered over by the canopy. If it is a young forest, the understory includes those trees that will eventually replace the trees in the canopy.
Small trees make up the understory. Their flowers are often unnoticed until their petals drop to the ground. Serviceberries, hawthorns, and crabapples are some of the understory trees that are most easily approached in the autumn, when their fruits have had a chance to ripen and their leaves have begun to drop.
The canopy is made up of tall trees that tower over the forest. In a mature forest these tall trees are generally deciduous hardwoods. A number of nut-bearing trees, including tall oaks, hickories, and beeches, live in the canopy. Thankfully, these canopy trees generally drop their nuts in the fall and winter, making these otherwise inaccessible treats easy to find and eat.
Conifers are cone-bearing trees that are mostly evergreen. In more northern areas of the country, they can be the most common plant species in boreal forests, but they can also be found at high elevations in more southern areas. Pines are the most common and recognizable of these types of trees, and are widely distributed. Also included among the conifers are cypress, cedar, hemlock, and fir, the traditional American Christmas tree. Most of these trees have easy-to-spot needle-like leaves, while some are more scale-like.
Pine seeds are attached to thin, membrane-like wings that are carried by the wind when they are released from the cone. Numerous seeds are produced and can be carried great distances. When conditions are right, they germinate and send up new sprouts. Most of these sprouts will die since they need a lot of sunlight to grow. Pine sprouts are a good source of vitamin C. At this stage you can pick the sprouts and eat the tips.
Older conifers have needles that are too tough to eat. Instead, you can use them to make a tea that is rich in vitamin C by steeping them in boiling water for a few minutes at a time. In the spring male catkins, which are long, drooping clusters of small flowers and pollen, are produced by pines and can be nibbled on. When the pollen develops it can be collected and added to flour. The inner bark of some pine species, including white pine, can be dried, powdered, and used as an emergency flour substitute.
Pine barrens are unique habitats in the eastern United States that have deep, sandy soil and oak pine forests. Contrary to their name, they are not barren. At one time the pine barrens extended from New Jersey and southeastern Virginia, along the coastal plain to Texas. In New Jersey the pines are mostly pitch pine, while in Virginia longleaf pine is the dominant tree. The dry surface soil and resinous pines are highly flammable and result in frequent fires that help shape the ecology of the area. Both regions have an open canopy with fire-resistant pines.
Sandy soil and plenty of sunlight are favorable for the growth of members of the heath family, including blueberries and huckleberries, which form a thick shrub layer in the understory. Wintergreen is abundant in both areas, forming a thick, evergreen carpet on the forest floor. In New Jersey there are Atlantic white cedar swamps interspersed with the oak-pine forests. In the bogs is a lush layer of sphagnum moss with cranberries and other herbaceous plants.
Eastern red cedar is characteristic of cedar glades. The bark is thin and peels easily from the tree. They are woody, evergreen trees and shrubs with needle-like to scale-like leaves. The thick canopy prevents a lot of growth in the understory. What appears to be a berry is actually a cone. When looked at under a magnifying glass, you can see tiny cones with scales pressed so tightly that they appear to be round. The fruits are aromatic and turn blue when mature.
Juniper berries have traditionally been used for flavoring in a variety of dishes. The flavoring in gin comes from juniper berries. Berries should be gathered when they have turned dark blue and are juicy. They can be used fresh or dried and stored for future use. Even though juniper berries are used as a seasoning, their medicinal uses outnumber their food uses. For this reason, they should be used sparingly and only for short periods of time as a seasoning or a tea.
Mixed Deciduous Forests
A mixed deciduous forest is a combination of hardwoods and conifers, all competing for sunlight. They form a dense understory with a diversity of young trees, shrubs, vines, and herbs. These forests can be found east of the Mississippi River, across the Ohio valley to the Potomac, the mountains of Tennessee, Kentucky, West Virginia, and Virginia and in the southern Appalachian mountains of North Carolina and Georgia.
Deciduous forests have mostly hardwood trees that drop their leaves in the fall. Elevation, soil type, temperature, and rainfall determine the types of trees that grow in a particular region. An older forest has a denser canopy and therefore a more open understory for early wildflowers to grow, including wild ginger, Indian cucumber root, and wintergreen.
Some soils are more acidic than others. In forests where there are oaks, pines, beeches, or other members of those families, the leaf litter builds up, keeping the soil layer thin and acidic. Other trees, such as maple and basswood, have leaves that are quickly broken down and recycled, forming a thick layer of topsoil that supports a greater diversity of plant life.