1. Worldwide, the floristic composition of temperate forests bears the imprint of past land use for decades to centuries as forests regrow on agricultural land. Many species, however, display significant interregional variation in their ability to (re)colonize post-agricultural forests. This variation in colonization across regions and the underlying factors remain largely unexplored.
2. We compiled data on 90 species and 812 species × study combinations from 18 studies across Europe that determined species’ distribution patterns in ancient (i.e. continuously forested since the first available land use maps) and post-agricultural forests. The recovery rate (RR) of species in each landscape was quantified as the log-response ratio of the percentage occurrence in post-agricultural over ancient forest and related to the species-specific life-history traits and local (soil characteristics and light availability) and regional factors (landscape properties as habitat availability, time available for colonization, and climate).
3. For the herb species, we demonstrate a strong (interactive) effect of species’ life-history traits and forest habitat availability on the RR of post-agricultural forest. In graminoids, however, none of the investigated variables were significantly related to the RR.
4. The better colonizing species that mainly belonged to the short-lived herbs group showed the largest interregional variability. Their recovery significantly increased with the amount of forest habitat within the landscape, whereas, surprisingly, the time available for colonization, climate, soil characteristics and light availability had no effect.
5. Synthesis. By analysing 18 independent studies across Europe, we clearly showed for the first time on a continental scale that the recovery of short-lived forest herbs increased with the forest habitat availability in the landscape. Small perennial forest herbs, however, were generally unsuccessful in colonizing post-agricultural forest – even in relatively densely forested landscapes. Hence, our results stress the need to avoid ancient forest clearance to preserve the typical woodland flora.