Longleaf pine (Pinus palustris) ecosystems are characterized by a diverse community of native groundcover species. Critics of plantation forestry claim that loblolly (Pinus taeda) and slash pine (Pinus elliottii) forests are devoid of native groundcover due to associated management practices. As a result of these practices, some believe that ecosystem functions characteristic of longleaf pine are lost under loblolly and slash pine plantation management. Our objective was to quantify and compare vegetation composition and structure of longleaf, loblolly, and slash pine forests of differing ages, management strategies, and land-use histories. Information from this study will further our understanding and lead to inferences about functional differences among pine cover types. Vegetation and environmental data were collected in 49 overstory plots across Southlands Experiment Forest in Bainbridge, GA. Nested plots, i.e. midstory, understory, and herbaceous, were replicated four times within each overstory plot. Over 400 species were identified. Herbaceous species richness was variable for all three pine cover types. Herbaceous richness for longleaf, slash, and loblolly pine averaged 15, 13, and 12 species per m2, respectively. Longleaf pine plots had significantly more (p < 0.029) herbaceous species and greater herbaceous cover (p < 0.001) than loblolly or slash pine plots. Longleaf and slash pine plots were otherwise similar in species richness and stand structure, both having lower overstory density, midstory density, and midstory cover than loblolly pine plots. Multivariate analyses provided additional perspectives on vegetation patterns. Ordination and classification procedures consistently placed herbaceous plots into two groups which we refer to as longleaf pine benchmark (34 plots) and non-benchmark (15 plots). Benchmark plots typically contained numerous herbaceous species characteristic of relic longleaf pine/wiregrass communities found in the area. Conversely, non-benchmark plots contained fewer species characteristic of relic longleaf pine/wiregrass communities and more ruderal species common to highly disturbed sites. The benchmark group included 12 naturally regenerated longleaf plots and 22 loblolly, slash, and longleaf pine plantation plots encompassing a broad range of silvicultural disturbances. Non-benchmark plots included eight afforested old-field plantation plots and seven cutover plantation plots. Regardless of overstory species, all afforested old fields were low either in native species richness or in abundance. Varying degrees of this groundcover condition were also found in some cutover plantation plots that were classified as non-benchmark. Environmental variables strongly influencing vegetation patterns included agricultural history and fire frequency. Results suggest that land-use history, particularly related to agriculture, has a greater influence on groundcover composition and structure in southern pine forests than more recent forest management activities or pine cover type. Additional research is needed to identify the potential for afforested old fields to recover native herbaceous species. In the interim, high-yield plantation management should initially target old-field sites which already support reduced numbers of groundcover species. Sites which have not been farmed in the past 50-60 years should be considered for longleaf pine restoration and multiple-use objectives, since they have the greatest potential for supporting diverse native vegetation. (C) 2000 Elsevier Science B.V.