Questions: What are important forest characteristics determining colonization of forest patches by forest understorey species? Location: Planted forests on land recently reclaimed from the sea, the Netherlands. Methods: We related the distribution of forest specialist species in the understorey of 55 forests in Dutch IJsselmeer polders to the following forest characteristics: age, area, connectivity, distance to mainland (as a proxy for distance to seed source) and path density. We used species of the Fraxino-Ulmetum association for the Netherlands as reference for species that could potentially occur in the study area. Results: Area and age of the surveyed forests explained a large part of the variation in overall species composition and species number of forest plant species. The importance of connectivity and distance to the mainland of forest habitats became apparent only at a more detailed level of dispersal groups and individual species. The importance of forest parameters differed between dispersal groups and also between individual species. After 60 years, 75% of the potential pool of wind-dispersed spe Conclusions: The data strongly suggest that the colonization process in polder forests is still in its initial phase, during which easily dispersed species dominate the vegetation. Colonization success of common species that lack adaptations to long-distance dispersal is affected by spatial configuration of the forests, and most rare species that could potentially occur in these forests are still absent. Implications for conservation of rare species in fragmented landscapes are discussed.