Large coherent structures over vegetation canopies are responsible for a substantial part of the turbulent transfer of momentum, heat and mass between the canopy and the atmosphere. As forested landscapes are often fragmented, edge regions may be of importance in turbulent transfer. The development of coherent structures from the leading edge of a forest is investigated here for the first time. For this purpose, the turbulent flow over a clearing–forest pattern is simulated using the Advanced Regional Prediction System (ARPS). In previous studies the code has been modified so as to simulate turbulent flows at very fine scale (0.1h, where h is the mean canopy height) within and above heterogeneous vegetation canopies, using a large-eddy simulation (LES) approach. Validations have also been performed over homogeneous forest canopies and over a simple forest–clearing–forest pattern, against field and wind-tunnel measurements. Here, a schematic picture of the development of coherent eddies downstream from the leading edge of a forest is extracted from the mean vorticity components, the Q-criterion field, the cross-correlation of the wind velocity components and the length and separation length scales of coherent structures, determined by using a wavelet transform. This schematic picture shows strong similarities with the development of coherent structures observed in a mixing layer, with four different regions: (i) close to the edge, Kelvin–Helmholtz instabilities develop when a strong wind gust hits the canopy; (ii) these instabilities roll over to form transverse vortices from around 3h downstream from the edge, characterized by a length scale close to the depth of the internal boundary layer that develops from the canopy edge; (iii) secondary instabilities destabilize these rollers and increase the vertical and streamwise vorticity components from around 6h, and two counter-rotating streamwise vortices appear; (iv) at about 9h the initial rollers have become complex three-dimensional coherent structures, with spatially constant mean length and separation length scales. These four stages of development occur closer to the edge with increasing canopy density. While this average picture of the development of coherent structures is similar to that observed in a mixing layer, the analysis of instantaneous fields shows that coherent structures behind the leading edge appear as resulting from the ‘branching’ of tubes localized in regions of low pressure, where their cores are characterized by high values of enstrophy and Q-criterion.