Using molecular fingerprinting (amplified fragment length polymorphism [AFLP] method), we explored the potential of small-scale population analysis for understanding colonization patterns of herb layer species in forests after canopy disturbance. We investigated three common forest understorey species with different life forms (Trientalis europaea, Calamagrostis villosa, and Vaccinium myrtillus) in the Harz Mountains in Germany in three different gap age classes and undisturbed forest. For two of them (T. europaea and C. villosa), we analyzed clone sizes and clonal structure. We hypothesized that clone sizes depend on age since gap formation and are affected by light availability. Mean patch sizes of V. myrtillus, T. europaea, and C. villosa formed were 3.7 m2, 27.9 m2, and 40.6 m2, respectively. Trientalis europaea and C. villosa patches consisted mostly of more than one genet. Largest clone sizes of T. europaea were encountered in gaps of intermediate successional age (15–60 years, averaged minimum estimation of clone sizes: 6.56 m2) whereas clone size of C. villosa was found to be independent from gap age and had a mean minimum clone size of 0.49 m2. In both species, clone size was positively related to light availability. Additionally, there was a positive relationship between clone size and ramet density for T. europaea and C. villosa. Genetic variation was higher within populations of T. europaea and C. villosa than among populations. Trientalis europaea was the only species with a clear genetic isolation by distance, pointing at an equilibrium between gene flow and genetic drift. In conclusion, we showed that forest canopy gap dynamics clearly affect the small-scale structure of populations of understorey plants. Species with high lateral growth rates, such as T. europaea offer the possibility to serve as “ecological clock” for dating ecological processes.