NC State Extension Publications

 

Herbaceous plants are plants that have non-woody stems, including grasses, sedges, rushes, ferns, and forbs. Forbs are broad-leaf plants often referred to as wildflowers or weeds. Annual herbaceous plants live for only one year, whereas perennials live for multiple years. Herbaceous plants, especially grasses and forbs, are valuable sources of food and cover for many wildlife species, including:

Northern bobwhite quail

Ruffed grouse

Eastern box turtle

Ground-nesting birds

Wild turkey

White-tailed deer

Cottontail rabbits

Mice and voles

Snakes

Butterflies

Grasses are more important as cover and rarely are an important food source; on the other hand, forbs provide critical foods for a wide range of wildlife species (e.g., provide forage for deer and rabbits, produce seeds for bobwhite quail, harbor invertebrates for turkey poults). The availability of grasses and forbs may particularly be a limiting factor to forest-dwelling wildlife. Dense cover of overstory trees casts shade on the ground, prohibiting growth of herbaceous plants, which in turn eliminates critical food and cover for many species of wildlife.

Herbaceous plants occur across a range of plant community types (e.g., woodland, streamside forest, prairie, crop field margins) and include species with a wide range of moisture and light requirements. The frequency, timing, and extent of management practices have substantial influence on the types of species and coverage of herbaceous plants that will be present on a property.

Maintain Herbaceous Plants in Openings

Early successional openings that are free of trees contain dense herbaceous cover because of the extensive sunlight reaching the ground. These openings ideally are dominated by forbs with a lesser extent of grasses and patches of shrubs or tree sprouts. Early successional openings provide excellent food and cover for rabbits, quail, deer, and many songbirds. However, establishing and maintaining these openings can be time-consuming and costly. Hence, openings should be maintained on log decks, abandoned fields, and other unused areas adjacent to woodlands before creating new clearings. Non-native grasses (e.g., tall fescue and bermudagrass) in pastures should be removed via herbicide treatments before initiating other management activities; these grasses grow densely, restrict animal movements, and reduce forb cover.

The following methods provide cost-effective maintenance for these openings:

Mowing and Brush Chopping

Periodic mowing temporarily reduces woody vegetation that naturally overtakes abandoned fields and pastures. Best results are achieved using a rotary mower pulled by a tractor. Mowing typically is the least desirable form of disturbance because animals, including nests and young, commonly are killed by the mower blades. Mowing also promotes a buildup of grass thatch that limits bare ground, reduces forb coverage, and restricts animal movement.

Disking

Disking tends to promote more annual herbaceous plants than mowing because bare soil is exposed and more forb seeds can become established. Unlike farming operations, disking for wildlife is not aimed at uprooting and turning under all existing plant matter. Vary the disking intensity to rejuvenate existing stems and expose bare soil for plant germination. Plant response to disking will vary by season, and late winter disking tends to provide the best results with the shortest-term reduction in plant cover.

Prescribed Burning

Prescribed burning is the least costly, most versatile wildlife management tool. In early successional openings and in open woodland, prescribed fire increases the yield and quality of herbaceous plants, especially legumes. Prescribed fire conducted on a one-to-three-year interval favors herbaceous plants by exposing soil for germination, releasing nutrients, and reducing shade from young trees and shrubs.

Rotating management disturbances such as disking or burning promotes diversity of food and cover in a small area and allows wildlife a place to escape during the short time after each management action reduces vegetation cover (Figure 1). Habitat components like food and cover in close proximity promote the health and survival of young quail and other early successional wildlife. The figure below illustrates a typical three-year rotation system that provides forbs and grasses adjacent to older protective cover.

Selective Herbicide Treatment

Herbicides are one of the most effective and labor saving methods of managing the plant community in openings, including reductions in undesirable woody sprouts or non-native grasses and forbs. Selective spraying, wicking, or broadcast boom applications can maintain desired herbaceous plants. Consult with your local extension agent, wildlife biologist, or pesticide supplier for recommendations on the appropriate herbicide for your situation and local conditions. Always follow label directions.

Daylighting

Herbaceous strips may be created along existing fire lines, old woods roads, utility rights-of-way, and haul or skid roads. On woodland roads or similar strip openings, “daylight” or remove trees to a width that permits full sunlight to reach the ground. The objective is to have herbaceous cover with patches of woody cover along the road margins while also allowing the road to dry out more rapidly (Figure 2).

photo of 2 burners igniting a controlled burn

Controlled burning maintains habitat effectively.

Ryan Hagerty, USFWS  CC BY-NC-SA - 4.0

image of a bobwhite quail in a field

Bobwhite quail benefit from herbaceous cover.

Dave Menke, USFWS  CC BY-NC-SA - 4.0

Figure of Simple layout of burning repeating plan.

Figure 1. Simplified layout of strip burning / disking plan.

Figure of road with abundant sun near cleared roadside .

Figure 2. Daylighted road.

Establishing Herbaceous Plants

Examples of Herbaceous Plants Beneficial to Wildlife

Forbs

Grasses

Partridge Pea

Big bluestem

Thoroughwort and Boneset (Eupatorium)

Indiangrass

Pokeweed

Broomsedge

Roundhead lespedeza

Switchgrass

Goldenrod (Solidago)

Atlantic coastal panicgrass

Wild blue indigo

Foxtail grass

Ragweed

Plumegrass (Saccharum)

Beggarlice (Desmodium)

Low panicgrass (Dicanthelium)

Tall coreopsis

Virginia wild rye

Joe-Pye weed

Carolina geranium

Common milkweed

Butterflyweed

Blackberry
Narrowleaf mountainmint

Planting generally is not required to establish a high quality early successional plant community. In forest, all that is required is to remove some or most of the competing overstory tree cover, especially when followed by prescribed burning. In pasture, all that is required is to kill the perennial non-native grasses. In cropland, all that is required is to allow the area to grow up in fallow vegetation comprised of grasses and forbs. Sometimes planting may be warranted in cropland that has been managed intensively for an extended period. In the case that plating is required, consider target wildlife species, soil moisture, soil types, and planting season when choosing what to plant. Always soil test and prepare the seedbed before establishment. Most forest sites are acidic and will require lime and phosphorus. In the absence of a soil test, apply 50 - 100 lbs. of lime per 1,000 square feet. Apply 10 lbs. of 10-10-10 fertilizer per 1,000 square feet in spring and fall for best results.

Image: tractor disking field

Disking is especially critical to maintain annual plants.

Phyliss Cooper  CC BY - 4.0

Image of field and sky with grass, forbes without trees or shrub

Grasslands and other early successional communities attract a variety of wildlife and birds.

Liessa Bowen  CC BY-NC-SA - 4.0

Image of bunny in field

Eastern cottontail foraging on herbaceous vegetation.

Chelsi Burns, USFWS  CC BY - 4.0

References

Thinning Pine Stands, WON-13

Forest Stewardship with Hand-Applied Herbicides, AG-530

Prescribed Fire to Improve Wildlife Habitat, AG-630

J.M., and Harper, C.A. 2018. Renovating Native Warm-season Grass Stands for Wildlife. Purdue Extension. FNR-548-W. 27 pages.

C.A. 2016. A Guide to Wildlife Food Plots and Early Successional Plants. Knoxville, TN. 446 pages. ISBN-13: 978-0692592632.

C.A. 2017. Managing Early Successional Plant Communities for Wildlife in the Eastern US. Knoxville, TN. 91 pages. ISBN 978-0-692-90231-8.

C.A. 2017. A Quick Guide for Landowners Managing Old-fields for Wildlife. UT Extension. PB 1855. 13 pages.

Authors

Wildlife Biologist
Professor (Wildlife)
Forestry & Environmental Resources
Extension Professor
Forestry & Environmental Resources

Publication date: June 1, 2019
Revised: July 1, 2019

North Carolina State University and North Carolina A&T State University commit themselves to positive action to secure equal opportunity regardless of race, color, creed, national origin, religion, sex, age, veteran status or disability. In addition, the two Universities welcome all persons without regard to sexual orientation.

North Carolina State University and North Carolina A&T State University commit themselves to positive action to secure equal opportunity regardless of race, color, creed, national origin, religion, sex, age, veteran status or disability. In addition, the two Universities welcome all persons without regard to sexual orientation.