St. Anne Woods & Wetlands
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A Understory Plants

understory

A forest ecosystem is comprised of many layers: canopy, understory, and forest floor. The understory is the layer of a forest made up of shrubs as well as small trees growing to reach the canopy layer. Less light is able to reach this lower layer, so understory plants must be able to complete their life cycle in the shade of the forest canopy.

Notice the difference in plant composition between where you're standing and the wetland, the depressed area behind this sign. Two feet in elevation makes a big difference! The roots of the plant species in the higher area around this sign would suffocate under standing water, while the roots in the wetland plant species are adapted to survive part of the year under water. Understory shrubs prefer the drier, well-drained areas outside of the wetland. Shrubs around this sign include spicebush, Amur honeysuckle, and pawpaw.

The first shrub just to the left of this sign is spicebush (Lindera benzoin), a shrub known for its spicy aroma. Clusters of small greenish-yellow flowers bloom along the branches in early spring before the leaves emerge. Red berries attract birds in late summer, and thick, light green leaves turn yellow in autumn.

The next shrub to the left of this sign is Amur honeysuckle (Lonicera maackii), the most common shrub in this understory. It is an invasive species from Asia imported to control erosion and to serve as an ornamental shrub. It grows fast, forms dense thickets with long-lasting foliage, and native plants have difficulty competing in these areas. Amur Honeysuckle's sweet, white flowers bloom from mid spring to early summer. The fruit is a red berry that is unpalatable to humans but is eaten by birds, which spread the seeds in their droppings.

Finally, 15 feet to the left of this sign are pawpaws (Asimina triloba), clustered shrubs of large, dark green leaves with a scent similar to a green bell pepper. Spring brings flowers with petals that vary from purple to redbrown. The edible fruit is easily seen in autumn when the leaves turn a rusty yellow. Bark of the pawpaw is dark brown and blotched with gray spots.

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Genus Asmina

understory

Pawpaws are shrubs or small trees, reaching heights of 2-12 m tall. The northern, cold-tolerant common pawpaw (Asimina triloba) is deciduous, while the southern species are often evergreen.

The leaves are alternate, simple ovate, entire, 20-35 cm long and 10-15 cm broad.

The fetid flowers are produced singly or in clusters of up to eight together; they are large, 4-6 cm across, perfect, with six sepals and petals (three large outer petals, three smaller inner petals). The petal color varies from white to purple or red-brown.

The fruit is a large edible berry, 5-16 cm long and 3-7 cm broad, weighing from 20-500 g, with numerous seeds; it is green when unripe, maturing to yellow or brown. It has a flavor somewhat similar to both banana and mango, varying significantly by cultivar, and has more protein than most fruits.

The fruits are quite popular, but the shelf life of the ripe fruit is almost non-existent, for it soon ripens to the point of fermentation. Those who wish to preserve the fruit for the future do so by dehydration, making it into jams or jellies, or pressure canning by using the numerical values for bananas. In southern West Virginia, pawpaws are made into a native version of banana nut cake or fruit cake and baked inside canning jars, the lids heat-sealed to keep the food for at least a year.

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Genus Lindera

understory

Lindera is a genus of about 80-100 species of flowering plants in the family Lauraceae, mostly native to eastern Asia but with three species in eastern North America. The species are shrubs and small trees; common names include spicebush and Benjamin bush.

The leaves can be either deciduous or evergreen, depending on species, and are alternate, entire or three-lobed, and strongly spicy-aromatic. The flowers are small, yellowish, with six tepals. The fruit is a small red, purple or black drupe containing a single seed.

Lindera species are used as food plants by the larvae of some Lepidoptera species including the Engrailed Moth.

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