By Ryan Davila
Many people think of a forest and immediately imagine trees towering far above their heads. Although this is one component of a forest, what most don’t realize is that there is a completely different world at eye-level and below!
A forest understory refers to plant life growing beneath the forest canopy without penetrating the canopy to any extent. An understory is comprised of a wide array of seedlings and saplings of larger canopy trees, small tree species that will never reach the canopy, and many different shrubs and herbs that remain low to the ground never extending higher than a couple of feet.
If you’re pondering a new gardening project, consider planting Possumhaw (aka deciduous holly), Mexican buckeye, Texas persimmon or Texas mountain laurel. These understory species can be a great asset to your aspiring landscape or wildscape as they add vibrant color and exotic aroma to your garden through the many different colored flowers and fruits they produce. They also provide foliage and a habitat for many insect and animal species found in the San Antonio area.
Apart from the exciting features understory species can create in any garden, many understory species found in the area are Central Texas natives that will thrive in our environment with little care. Furthermore, understory species, especially small trees, are a more permanent and often drought-tolerant choice, saving you money by reducing costs on future plant material and by reducing water consumption.
Well-established understories can be hard to find in the average garden. However, a trip to a nearby nature park is the perfect opportunity to not only become closer with nature, but also to get a better idea of what some of these understory species look like and how big they can grow over time. And you just may be inspired to incorporate some of what you see into your landscape.
To get a broad picture of the various understory species that exist in the Central Texas region, I suggest exploring Medina River Valley Natural Area, Phil Hardberger Park and Friedrich Wilderness Park.
If you find something you like on one of your adventures through the wilderness, take a look at our plant database to find general information about the plant. Adventure is out there — and so are some great understory ideas for your next gardening project!
Ryan Davila is a conservation intern with the San Antonio Water System.