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Forest Stratification

Forest Stratification simply refers to the different layers of plants in a forest. In a
mature forest, one can typically see several distinct layers of vegetation rising from the
forest floor to the tree canopy.
Young forests may not show clear separations between layers. It is only as forests age
and trees grow to create a tall canopy that layering becomes most visible. To learn more
about forest layers you can investigate the interactive figure and text below.

Canopy Layer
Primary Vegetation: Mature Trees
The canopy, sometimes called the "overstory", is the highest vegetative layer in the
forest. The canopy is filled by leaves deployed from large mature trees. During the
growing season, canopy leaves intercept much of the sunlight available to a forest.
Typically less than 50% of the total amount of sunlight can pass through the canopy to
plants in the forest layers below.
In a deciduous forest, the canopy is typically the last layer to show green in the spring.
Since the canopy trees receive sunlight throughout the growing season, they can wait
longer to deploy their leaves. This reduces the risk of the young tender leaves being
destroyed by a late freeze.
Some trees grow especially tall. Sometimes these tall growing trees can actually grow
through the canopy. Giant trees that poke through the canopy are called "emergents."
Emergents are able to harness immense amounts of unfiltered sunlight above the canopy.
However, the leafy crown of emergent trees are openly exposed to fierce winds that howl
above the canopy. Therefore, emergents are susceptible to be being blown down during
gusty storms.

Understory Layer
Primary Vegetation: Tree Saplings, Small Shade-Tolerant Trees (ex. dogwood, redbud,
musclewood) & Tall Shrubs
Just beneath the Canopy and above the Shrub layer lies the Understory. The
Understory can be thought of as a tree sapling staging ground. In a mature forest, many
saplings can claim enough nutrients and sunlight to reach the Understory. However,
further growth is typically impractical as the saplings can not steal enough additional
nutrients from established canopy trees to grow any higher. So many saplings slow their
growth and wait in the Understory until a mature canopy tree dies. How well a sapling can
grow in full shade and how long a sapling can survive in the understory are two principle
measures of a tree's shade tolerance.
When a mature tree dies and opens a gap in the canopy, all of the saplings waiting in
the understory rush upward. The saplings quick growth is fueled by the sudden increase
in sunlight and nutrients no longer claimed by the deceased tree. The race to reach the
canopy is very much a race for survival. There is typically only room for one new tree in
the canopy. The tree that reaches the canopy continues to grow and expand, gradually
reducing the flow of sunlight and nutrients to the trees below. All saplings that
committed to the growth race but failed to reach the canopy gradually weaken and
eventually die.

Shrub Layer
Primary Vegetation: Young Tree Saplings, Mature Shrubs and Bushes
Between the Understory and Litter Layers is the Shrub Layer. This low lying layer of
vegetation is typically between 3' and 7' from the ground surface. Mostly bushy shrubs
occupy this position in the forest. An abundance of food for animals such as deer and
bears is found on shrub layer vegetation. In fact, many of these shrubs depend on
wildlife to distribute their seeds. The animals ingest the plants' fleshy fruits and
distribute the seeds in their feces.

Herb/Fern Layer
Primary Vegetation: Tree Seedlings, Herbs, Ferns, Grasses and Weeds
The Herb/Fern layer ranges from the ground surface to about 3' and is considered the
lowest forest layer with leafy living vegetation. This layer is typically the first forest
layer to turn green in the spring. Plants on the forest floor have to deploy their leaves
early in the growing season to capture direct sunlight to kick-start their growth cycle.
Once the understory and canopy trees have deployed their leaves, very little sunlight
remains for plants in the Herb/Fern Layer. Most of the plants in the Herb/Fern layer
have short life cycles.

Litter Layer
Primary Vegetation: Decaying plant and animal matter, Fungi, Mosses & Lichens
Alas, lying directly on the forest floor is the final forest layer, the Litter Layer. The
litter layer is the repository of all of the dead matter in the forest. As leaves, trees and
other plants die, they fall from upper layers and land on the forest floor. Here a host of
bacteria, fungi, worms, insects and other waste consumers chow down on the rubbish to
create new nutrient-rich soil.
The newly released nutrients are then extracted from the soil by the plants in the
forest. The plants use the nutrients to create new leafs and organic matter that will once
again return to the Litter Layer. This recycling of matter creates an on-going balanced
cycle that ensures the long term sustainability of the forest.