Understory (or understorey) in forestry and ecology refers to plant life growing beneath the forest canopy without penetrating it to any extent. Plants in the understory comprise an assortment of seedlings and saplings of canopy trees together with specialist understory shrubs and herbs. Young canopy trees often persist in the understory for decades as suppressed juveniles until an opening in the forest overstory permits their growth into the canopy. In contrast understory shrubs complete their life cycles in the shade of the forest canopy. Some smaller tree species, such as dogwood and holly, rarely grow tall and generally are understory trees.
Forest understories receive less intense light than plants in the canopy and such light as does penetrate is impoverished in wavelengths of light that are most effective for photosynthesis. Understory plants therefore must be shade tolerant—they must be able to photosynthesize adequately using such light as does reach their leaves. They often are able to use wavelengths that canopy plants cannot. In temperate deciduous forests towards the end of the leafless season, understory plants take advantage of the shelter of the still leafless canopy plants to "leaf out" before the canopy trees do. This is important because it provides the understory plants with a window in which to photosynthesize without the canopy shading them. This brief period (usually 1–2 weeks) is often a crucial period in which the plant can maintain a net positive carbon balance over the course of the year.
A fern is any one of a group of about 12,000 species of plants belonging to the botanical group known as Pteridophyta. Unlike mosses, they have xylem and phloem (making them vascular plants). They have stems, leaves, and roots like other vascular plants. Ferns reproduce via spores and have neither seeds nor flowers.
By far the largest group of ferns is the leptosporangiate ferns, but ferns as defined here (also called monilophytes) include horsetails, whisk ferns, marattioid ferns, and ophioglossoid ferns. The term pteridophyte also refers to ferns and a few other seedless vascular plants (see classification section below).
Ferns first appear in the fossil record 360 million years ago in the Carboniferous but many of the current families and species did not appear until roughly 145 million years ago in the early Cretaceous (after flowering plants came to dominate many environments).
Ferns are not of major economic importance, but some are grown or gathered for food, as ornamental plants, for remediating contaminated soils, and have been the subject of research for their ability to remove some chemical pollutants from the air. Some are significant weeds. They also play a role in mythology, medicine, and art.