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Understory (or understorey, underbrush) in forestry and ecology refers to plant life growing beneath the forest canopy without penetrating it to any extent. Plants in the understory comprise an assortment of seedlings and saplings of canopy trees together with specialist understory shrubs and herbs. Young canopy trees often persist in the understory for decades as suppressed juveniles until an opening in the forest overstory permits their growth into the canopy. In contrast understory shrubs complete their life cycles in the shade of the forest canopy. Some smaller tree species, such as dogwood and holly, rarely grow tall and generally are understory trees.
Forest understories receive less intense light than plants in the canopy and such light as does penetrate is impoverished in wavelengths of light that are most effective for photosynthesis. Understory plants therefore must be shade tolerant—they must be able to photosynthesize adequately using such light as does reach their leaves. They often are able to use wavelengths that canopy plants cannot. In temperate deciduous forests towards the end of the leafless season, understory plants take advantage of the shelter of the still leafless canopy plants to "leaf out" before the canopy trees do. This is important because it provides the understory plants with a window in which to photosynthesize without the canopy shading them. This brief period (usually 1–2 weeks) is often a crucial period in which the plant can maintain a net positive carbon balance over the course of the year.
As a rule forest understories also experience higher humidity than exposed areas. The forest canopy reduces solar radiation, so the ground does not heat up as rapidly as open ground. Consequently, the understory dries out more slowly than more exposed areas do. The greater humidity allows fungi and other decomposers to flourish. This drives nutrient cycling, and provides favorable microclimates for many animals and plants, such as the pygmy marmoset.
- Kramer, D. M., G. Johnson, O. Kiirats, G. E. Edwards. 2004. New fluorescence parameters for the determination of Q redox state and excitation energy fluxes. Photosynthesis Research 79:209-218
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