Temperate deciduous forests support many native plants because the soils are generally rich and the forests are not as susceptible to diseases that occur in rain forests. These forests have four distinct seasons during which some kind of biological activity occurs that supports the health of the forests, even in the dormant phase during the winter. The largest contiguous temperate forest in the U.S. lies in the eastern states south of the Canadian border and stretches to the southern states.
Native trees in temperate forests include hickory, oak, hemlock, maple, cottonwood, elm, walnut, birch, willow and beech. Most of these trees are hardwoods that have high value as lumber. These trees lose their leaves in the fall and winter, providing insulation from the cold temperatures and snow. The insects and small animals living on or beneath the forest floor eat and digest some of the debris, composting it to create nourishing topsoil.
Temperate forests have enough light reaching the forest floor to support saplings and smaller trees. In the eastern U.S., these trees include eastern redbud, flowering dogwood, American holly and the common witch-hazel. These trees each have preferences for moisture. The white fringetree likes rich soil and plenty of moisture. The flowering dogwood provides food for birds, as do the Washington hawthorn and American holly.
Native shrubs thrive in temperate forests and provide a great deal of food for animals and birds. Grouse and chickadees eat the berries from the red chokeberry bush. The Virginia sweetspire provides brilliant fall color, and the red osier dogwood berries provide food for both avian and animal populations. The mountain laurel shrub provides a winter habitat for animals and birds, as well as food from the stems and branches.
Native herbal plants found in temperate deciduous forests include ferns, mosses and flowering plants. The American ginseng has become a rare species, although nurseries propagate and sell the plant. The Mayapple is a plant whose fruit can be used to make jellies, the only edible part of the plant. Indian pipe is a white plant that cannot produce its own chlorophyll so it takes nutrition from the soil and decaying leaves on the forest floor. The ladyslipper is a protected plant in some states that produces a flower that resembles a woman's high-heeled shoe.