Despite a growing awareness that the herbaceous layer serves a special role in maintaining the structure and function of forests, this stratum remainsan underappreciated aspect of forest ecosystems. In this article I review and synthesize information concerning the herb layer’s structure,composition, and dynamics to emphasize its role as an integral component of forest ecosystems. Because species diversity is highest in the herb layeramong all forest strata, forest biodiversity is largely a function of the herb-layer community. Competitive interactions within the herb layer candetermine the initial success of plants occupying higher strata, including the regeneration of dominant overstory tree species. Furthermore, the herblayer and the overstory can become linked through parallel responses to similar environmental gradients. These relationships between strata varyboth spatially and temporally. Because the herb layer responds sensitively to disturbance across broad spatial and temporal scales, its dynamics canprovide important information regarding the site characteristics of forests, including patterns of past land-use practices. Thus, the herb layer has asignificance that belies its diminutive stature.
Gilliam FS. 2007. The ecological significance of the herbaceous layer in forest ecosystems. BioScience 57:845-858.