Forests are relatively large (typically more than 10 acres) with trees reaching heights of 60 to over 100 feet. Canopy trees characteristically have narrow crowns and limbless, shade-pruned trunks due to intense competition for sunlight. These dominating trees form a closed canopy, allowing little light to penetrate. Multilayered, shade-tolerant sub-canopy trees, shrubs, vines, ferns, and herbs are interspersed under the dense canopy.
Forests are restricted to landscapes with infrequent natural or man-caused fires, and are generally found on north and east slopes where soil moisture is greater. The absence of fire resulted in forests primarily in regions of rugged hills, floodplains, and swamplands.
Forest managers commonly pursue both high-quality timber production and wildlife management. In addition to producing tall, straight trees fit for the wood-products industry, forests typically yield a good mix of hard- and soft-mast (nut- and fruit-bearing) trees. This provides forage for wildlife during various times of the year. The forest floor is generally comprised of patchy herbaceous (soft-stemmed, nonwoody) plants, ferns, mosses, fungi, springtime herbs, and plants that grow from bulbs or shoots that push up through the deep leaf litter. Wildlife use this ground flora for food and habitat.
Woodlands have canopy of trees that range from 30- to 100-percent closure, allowing plenty of sunlight to reach the ground. This produces a dense ground cover rich in forbs, grasses, sedges, and other herbaceous plants. Woodlands are highly variable in canopy structure, but they have a comparable open understory and diverse vegetative ground layer. Woodlands have thin soils. They are commonly found on southern slopes with low soil moisture.
Woodland managers' primary objectives often include a mix of low-value timber production and wildlife management. Due to the fire frequency, woodlands generally have a good mix of hard-mast, overstory trees and shortleaf pine in the southern Ozarks. When properly managed with thinning and prescribed fire, these woodlands have a more abundant understory mix of grasses, forbs, and woody sprouts with a less prominent midstory. Thinning dry woodlands results in woody sprout and forb development, improving wildlife value through increased hard-mast yield and browse.
Savannas are grasslands interspersed with scattered trees, groups of trees of various ages, and shrubs. These take on the appearance of widely spaced, orchard-like groves or individual trees. Unlike woodlands, savannas are strongly associated with large prairies and are dominated by grasses and forbs. Savannas are species-rich, with most diversity found in the understory layer. Both plants and animals of the savanna are adapted to full sun, frequent fire, and grazing by native (before settlement) herbivores.
Only fragmented examples of former savannas exist in Missouri today because of suppression of natural and man-made fires. Remnant savannas are restricted to prairie regions and upland plains. Many animals use savannas, but only a few are strictly tied to this natural community.
Unlike savannas, open woodlands, such as those of the Ozark Highlands, have more old-growth, scattered, open-grown trees often surrounded by even-age young tree species. The ground of open woodlands has far less cover and fewer species than savannas because heavy leaf litter and dense underbrush shade it out.