Understory vegetation is the most diverse and least understood component of North American boreal forests. Understory communities are important as they act as drivers of overstory succession and nutrient cycling. The objective of this review was to examine how understory vegetation abundance, composition, and diversity change with stand development after a major stand replacing disturbance. Understory vegetation abundance and diversity increase rapidly after fire, in response to abundant resources and an influx of disturbance adapted species. The highest diversity occurs within the first 40 years following fire, and declines indefinitely thereafter as a result of decreasing productivity and increased dominance of a small number of late successional feather mosses and woody plant species. Vascular plant and bryophyte/lichen communities undergo very different successional changes. Vascular plant communities are dynamic and change more dramatically with time after fire, whereas bryophyte and lichen communities are much slower to establish and change over time. Considerable variations in these processes exist depending on canopy composition, site condition, regional climate, and frequently occurring non-stand-replacing disturbances. Forest management practices represent a unique disturbance process and can result in different understory vegetation communities from those observed for natural processes, with potential implications for overstory succession and long-term productivity. Because of the importance of understory vegetation on nutrient cycling and overstory composition, post-harvest treatments emulating stand-replacing fire are required to maintain understory diversity, composition, and promote stand productivity in boreal forests.