English name: Herbaceous Plant
herbaceous plant, any vascular plant that does not have true woody tissues. Herbaceous angiosperms (flowering plants) include nearly all annual and biennial plants and a large number of perennial plants. Nonflowering herbaceous plants are limited to the ferns and lycophytes; all gymnosperms are woody plants. Herbaceous plants typically have flexible green stems, and many die back for the winter, persisting with underground food-storage organs such as fleshy roots, rhizomes, bulbs, or corms.
All vascular plants begin their lives as herbaceous seedlings. While the true wood tissues of woody plants are developed during secondary growth, herbaceous plants, especially ferns and monocots, typically undergo little or no secondary growth. The vascular bundles (the xylem and phloem tissues) of such plants are typically enclosed within a sheath of supportive sclerenchyma cells. These ensheathed bundles, known as closed bundles, do not develop a vascular cambium (a layer of actively dividing cells) and thus lose their potential for secondary growth. Some herbaceous eudicots, however, have open vascular bundles and do undergo some secondary growth. Alfalfa (Medicago) is one such plant, and, similar to woody plants, its vascular bundles are arranged in a ring toward the outside of the stem around a large central pith. The open vascular bundles are not enclosed by a sclerenchyma sheath, and the cambium primarily produces sclerenchyma fibres for additional rigidity of the herbaceous plant body. Some eudicots, such as lavender and climbing hydrangea, undergo enough secondary growth that their classification as herbaceous or woody is somewhat ambiguous; they are often listed as “semiwoody.” Despite their size and strength, treelike monocots, such as palms and bananas, lack true woody tissues and are considered herbaceous.
Ecologically, herbaceous plants play a myriad of roles in ecosystems across the globe. Herbaceous plants are the dominant vegetation in many places—including grasslands, bogs, marshes, prairies, alpine environments, and many aquatic environments—and thus are critical habitat for other organisms. Even in landscapes dominated by woody species, such as forests, herbaceous plants contribute to understory biodiversity and fill important ecological niches. Herbaceous plants are the foundation of food webs and are the exclusive or major source of sustenance for innumerable large and small herbivores. Given that herbaceous plants typically have shorter life cycles than woody plants, they play a critical role in nutrient cycling in all environments where plants are found.
Economically, the majority of the world’s food crops are herbaceous plants, including all cereal grains (such as rice, wheat, oats, barley, and corn), many fruits, and nearly all common vegetables. As their name suggests, many culinary and medicinal herbs are indeed herbaceous plants, though some, such as rosemary, are considered woody. In addition, many common horticultural plants—grown as garden ornamentals, houseplants, or for the floral industry—are herbaceous species.