Despite a growing awareness that the herbaceous layer serves a special role in maintaining the structure and function of forests, this stratum remains an 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 layer among all forest strata, forest biodiversity is largely a function of the herb-layer community. Competitive interactions within the herb layer can determine the initial success of plants occupying higher strata, including the regeneration of dominant overstory tree species. Furthermore, the herb layer and the overstory can become linked through parallel responses to similar environmental gradients. These relationships between strata vary both spatially and temporally. Because the herb layer responds sensitively to disturbance across broad spatial and temporal scales, its dynamics can provide important information regarding the site characteristics of forests, including patterns of past land-use practices. Thus, the herb layer has a significance that belies its diminutive stature.
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Vol. 57 • No. 10