We present a reconceptualization of forests in eastern North America by differentiating the ecological characteristics of open oak (Quercus) and pine (Pinus) forests from closed successional and old‐growth forests. Despite historical abundance of savannas and woodlands, the fundamental ecology of open forest ecosystems remains ill‐defined when compared to either closed forests or grasslands. Open forests were characterized by simple internal stand structure consisting of a single stratum of variably spaced, often very old overstory trees and limited midstory, maintained by understory disturbance that controlled tree regeneration and allowed instead a taxonomically rich herbaceous groundlayer. In contrast, closed forests have dense woody growth throughout the vertical profile, limiting herbaceous plants. To provide further clarity about these ecosystems, we developed a canopy closure spectrum model dependent on the interactions between prevailing disturbance regimes of the historical and current eras, which affect either the tree understory (regeneration) or overstory, and tree traits of fire and shade tolerance. Recognition of different stand structures, disturbance regimes, and their interrelationships should expand understanding of open forests and limit ecological misunderstandings and restoration misapplications, thereby improving management of these once historically extensive ecosystems.