The Interesting and Diverse World of the Understory.

  • Published on Jul 27 2017 |
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The understory and forest floor of any forest eco-system is the most interesting and diverse of any part of a habitat! Well, at least to me it is. It is here that the shrubs, wildflowers, fungi, moss, and lichens are the dominant features. It is here in the understory that, in addition to the rich soil types, are the edible and medicinal plants of nature!

When we think of salad, we don't realize that the vegetables we commonly eat in salad were once native, in one form or another, to another country. Early people everywhere, knew what plants were edible and medicinal. Here in Alberta that has also been the case!

For example, all parts of both Western Canada Wood Violet and Early Blue Violet are edible, and can be added to a raw salad. Always best when young, the shoots, leaves and flowers can be eaten raw or as garnish on salads, omelettes and stir-fry. These shade-loving plants are a tasty and colorful addition to a spring meal!

Over the last two years, I have also noticed a sad truth. The populations and the once many locations of some of my favorite wild edibles and beautiful wildflowers in the foothills, are becoming less. They are being out-competed by an introduced species that is not food for people, or wildlife, but food for cattle. The smooth Brome grass and Timothy Hay. These introduced species creates a cover over the ground that dominates the nutrient and water supply choking out the Calypso Orchids, Violets and other native species.

A local rancher once told me that I eat what "food" eats. And I do! I am not the only one though who requires the diversity of wildflowers, plants and shrubs for food and medicine. The First Nations, the Bears, bees, birds, herbivores, and insects of all types and sizes are also depending on the plant kingdom to provide that diverse smorgasbord of edibles and nectar to survive.

Rachael Carson wrote Silent Spring over her concerns of the birds dying due to DDT. What about the loss of the greater food supply that the understory and forest floor provide as the foundation of the wild food chain? Will this loss, un-noticed by so many, also lead to a "silent spring"?

Take the time to get to know your understory. Like the wind beneath your wings, the forest floor and the understory are the backbone and foundation of healthy soils, healthy plants, insects, birds, herbivores, and carnivores. Not to mention the medicinal uses, yet unexplored by our culture. Get outside and explore your local forest floor!

Julie Walker
CPAWS Education Hiking Guide