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Home Nebraska Habitats Deciduous Forest     Vegetation
Yellow-billed Cuckoo

Yellow-billed Cuckoo
(Courtesy NEBRASKAland Magazine/NGPC)

Maybe you’ve heard the expression, “He can’t see the forest for the trees.”  In a deciduous forest, it’s hard to miss the trees.

You’ll find hardwoods such as maple, oak, hickory, and beech. And even though it’s a deciduous woodland, there might be some evergreens, such as hemlock, spruce, and fir.

A deciduous forest can have three, four, or as many as five layers of plants:

  • Top layer or canopy: tall deciduous trees.  Although the canopy is very thick, it will allow sunlight to reach the forest floor, enabling the other layers to grow. 
  • Second layer: saplings and shorter types of trees 
  • Third layer or understory: shrubs
  • Fourth layer: forest herbs, such as wildflowers and berries. In spring, before the deciduous trees develop their leaves, these herbs bloom and grow to take full advantage while they get the most sunlight.
  • Fifth layer: mosses and lichens growing on tree trunks

Within an eastern deciduous forest, you’ll find considerable variety in the plant species, depending on where within the forest you look. The tree species you’ll see are a good example of this.

In upland deciduous forest, common trees include hackberry, shagbark hickory, elm, linden, ironwood, bur oak, walnut, red ash, ash (green and white), and red oak.

Near rivers and streams, you’ll find that cottonwood, mulberry, sycamore, and catalpa trees are more common.

In addition to these species, there are some lesser-seen species throughout deciduous forests.  These include redbud, pawpaw, catalpa, locust, and Kentucky Coffee.

Deciduous forest
(Courtesy NEBRASKAland Magazine/NGPC) 

In addition to the tree species, deciduous woodlands have an abundance of flower species. Several of these flower species bloom early in the spring in so they can get the maximum amount of sunlight before the canopy of leaves returns to shade the forest ground. These early-blooming flowers include spring beauty (Claytonia virginica), dutchman’s breeches (Dicentra cucullaria), and violets (Viola spp.).

Later-blooming forest flowers include bedstraw (Galium spp.), jewelweed (Impatiens spp.), snakeroot (Sanicula spp.), stinging nettle (Urtica dioica), wood nettle (Laportea canadensis), timber phlox (Phlox divaricata), virginia waterleaf (Hydrophyllum virginianum), and dame’s rocket (Hesperis matronalis).

The flower species of eastern deciduous woodlands face a major threat: the spread of garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata). This species was carried to the northeast United States by early settlers as an herb.  Over the past century, garlic mustard slowly spread west. Many grazing animals living in deciduous woodlands won’t eat garlic mustard, giving it an advantage over other plants.  Now it’s threatening to squeeze out many native flower species.

Decidious woodlands also contain several vine species, including river-bank grape (Vitis riparia), virginia creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia), and one you might prefer to “scratch” from the list – poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans).

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