What are Herbaceous Plants?

Mary McMahon

Herbaceous plants are plants with growth which dies back to the ground each year, in contrast with woody plants, which keep adding growth and remain active during the season when herbaceous plants are dormant. As a general rule, annual plants are all classified as herbaceous, but herbaceous plants can also be biennials or perennials as well. Many gardeners rely heavily on herbaceous plant species to add color and texture to their gardens, and these plants often form the core of a garden.

Irises are an example of herbaceous plants.
Irises are an example of herbaceous plants.

A typical herbaceous plant starts to die down in the fall, often dropping leaves in the process. In the spring, new growth appears as the plant's roots and low-lying stems start to put out fresh shoots. Eventually, the plant will flourish again, often producing bright, colorful flowers and rich greenery which will thrive through the summer before the plant starts to die back again.

The stems of herbaceous plants are usually soft and fleshy.
The stems of herbaceous plants are usually soft and fleshy.

In the case of annuals, the plant often reseeds itself, and new plants will grow again in the following spring. Biennials and perennials may be able to reseed, but they can also spread through rhizomes, corms, and bulbs. Some plants die back completely, while others retain some growth near the ground, especially in temperate zones, where the weather will not be severe enough to force the plant to die off entirely. This trait can be valuable, as gardeners usually do not want to look at dead stems and vacant patches in the garden every winter.

The stems of herbaceous plants are typically soft and fleshy, unlike those of woody plants. Many herbaceous plants are characterized by very bold, bright flowers, which makes them a very popular addition to the garden. Their foliage may also be bold and colorful, with some species being bred specifically for variegated foliage which will add color to the garden. Some examples of herbaceous plants include: irises, nasturtiums, peonies, carrots, and cosmos.

These plants can be used in a variety of ways in the garden. Herbaceous plants often make excellent borders and groundcovers, because they tend to grow rapidly and they take well to shaping with careful pruning and clipping. Their bright flowers also make them popular for container gardening. Some can be forced to bloom indoors in the winter, adding some color to the home in months when winter weather can make life seem grim, and these plants can also be used for things like erosion control, with seeds being spread over erosion-prone areas so that plants will develop and put out roots which will hold the soil in place.

Most nurseries keep an array of herbaceous plants in stock, along with seeds for growing them. Gardeners can also collect seeds from the gardens of friends and neighbors, and some plants will grow from clippings, as well. One of the advantages to using annuals and biennials in gardening is that the look and feel of a garden can constantly be changed as old plants die and new plants are established in their place.

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