Understanding the efficacy of passive (reduction or cessation of environmental stress) and active (typically involving planting or seeding) restoration strategies is important for the design of successful revegetation of degraded riparian habitat, but studies explicitly comparing restoration outcomes are uncommon. We sampled the understory herbaceous plant community of 103 riparian sites varying in age since restoration (0 to 39 years) and revegetation technique (active, passive, or none) to compare the utility of different approaches on restoration success across sites. We found that landform type, percent shade, and summer flow helped explain differences in the understory functional community across all sites. In passively restored sites, grass and forb cover and richness were inversely related to site age, but in actively restored sites forb cover and richness were inversely related to site age. Native cover and richness were lower with passive restoration compared to active restoration. Invasive species cover and richness were not significantly different across sites. Although some of our results suggest that active restoration would best enhance native species in degraded riparian areas, this work also highlights some of the context-dependency that has been found to mediate restoration outcomes. For example, since the effects of passive restoration can be quite rapid, this approach might be more useful than active restoration in situations where rapid dominance of pioneer species is required to arrest major soil loss through erosion. As a result, we caution against labeling one restoration technique as better than another. Managers should identify ideal restoration outcomes in the context of historic and current site characteristics (as well as a range of acceptable alternative states) and choose restoration approaches that best facilitate the achievement of revegetation goals.