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Nature Trees Understory


Understory Trees

The understory is the group of small trees, shrubs and vines that grow under the taller trees. These plants can grow in the shade of the taller trees. Understory trees usually stay short, even if they are very old. 

Serviceberry Amelanchier arborea
In the early spring, the serviceberry is covered with white flowers. The serviceberry got its name because it is one of the first trees to bloom in the spring, right after the big snows melt. This was the time in the olden-days that the preacher could get through the snow and have the first church "service". The leaves of the serviceberry are oval shaped with bumpy teeth along the edges. 

Dogwood Cornus florida
The dogwood is Missouri's official state tree. Do you know how you can you tell if you are looking at a dogwood? Look at its BARK, and see if it's RUFF! Ha Ha! But seriously, dogwoods have unusual tree bark. It looks like little squares about the size of your little fingernail all over the tree. This tree is called "dogwood"because is grows very slowly and makes an extremely hard wood that was used in old-time machinery parts called "dogs". In the early spring you will see this tree blooming in the forest with big white flowers with four petals. In the fall it is covered with tiny red berries. 

Winged Elm Ulmus alata
This elm is easy to identify because it really does have wings! If you look at some of the branches, you will see long strips of bark that are growing straight out of the branch like little wings. 

Greenbrier Smilax tamnoids
Ouch! If you have spent much time walking around the woods, you have probably met a green-brier! These long, thorny vines climb up trees and grow all over the ground. Found often in stream valleys and on wooded slopes, they have very sharp thorns on their stems that can even poke through your jeans. Suprisingly, greenbrier shoots - the tips of the growing stems picked from May through August - are edible raw, boiled or cooked. They taste like asparagus. 

Spice Bush Limdera benzoin
The spice bush has leaves that give off a spicy odor (like cinnamon) when you crush them. The leaves are egg shaped and come to a point on the end. In the fall it is easy to find the spice bush because it is covered in bright red berries. If you smash one of these berries and it smells spicy, it is probably a spice bush. If the berry does not smell spicy, the tree might be a dogwood. The berries of the spice bush were used by early people as a spice for cooking. 

Persimmon Diospyrs virginiana
The persimmon tree is one of the first to grow in abandoned fields, and it will sometimes grow in openings in the woods. This tree has a shiny smooth leaf that comes to a point at the tip. The wood of this tree is heavy and hard. The tree does not grow very large or tall. The most unusual characteristic of this tree is its fruit. The orange fruits of the persimmon tree are a sweet and delicious food for people and animals, but only after the first freeze in the fall. If you are ever tricked into eating one before the first frost, it will make your mouth pucker up. 

To learn about other plants and flowers in the understory, see Wildflowers and How People Use Wild Plants

Written by Jessica Cranall and Hank Dorst.