Lespedeza cuneata (Dum.-Cours.) G. Don. (Family: Fabaceae)
Chinese lespedeza, a warm-season perennial herb, has become one of the most problematic invasive plants in the eastern United States. Interestingly, the plants have no specialized structures for seed dispersal; instead, dispersal is aided by animals such as bobwhite quail consuming the fruits as a major portion of their diets and depositing the seeds in new locations. However, Chinese lespedeza is not preferred by many other species of wildlife due its high concentrations of tannins. Because it is unpalatable, wildlife may forage on surrounding native vegetation, increasing the lespedeza’s rate of spread. The mature seeds of the plant are quite hardy and can remain viable in the soil for up to twenty years. Often, new lespedeza seedlings in an area represent only 1% of the seeds actually available in the soil!
Also known as: Sericea lespedeza, hairy lespedeza, Chinese bush clover, sericea bush clover, silky bush clover, Himalayan bush clover
Origin: Chinese lespedeza is native to eastern Asia. It was introduced from Japan in the late 1800s to the southeastern United States and was intended to be used for erosion control and hay production on poor soils. Since then, it has been used widely by federal and state agencies for bank stabilization, soil improvement, livestock forage, wildlife habitat, and mine reclamation. It has escaped and infested natural areas, but plantings are still promoted for erosion control and quail food plots.
Chinese lespedeza is an herbaceous plant with an erect growth form and can be 3 to 6 feet tall.New shoots are tender until they reach maturity and then become woody and fibrous with sharp, stiff, flattened bristles.
Leaves, which are numerous and crowded, occur alternately along the stems. Each leaf is divided into 3 smaller leaflets which are narrowly oblong and pointed, with awl-shaped spines and wedge-shaped bases. The leaflets are covered with densely flattened hairs, giving them a grayish-green or silvery appearance.
The plant’s tiny flowers, which appear from late July to October, are creamy white to pale yellow with purple throats and pink veins. They emerge either singly or in clusters of 2 to 4 from the axils of leaves on the upper third of the plant.
In the fall, fruit is produced in the form of legume seedpods, each containing one tiny, bean-shaped, shiny seed that is yellow to light brown in color.
The plant’s root system is a woody taproot that branches widely and penetrates the soil more than 3 feet deep.
Distribution: Chinese lespedeza has spread throughout much of the eastern United States from Minnesota to Texas and east to New York and Florida. It can invade a variety of habitats including open woodlands, pastures, prairies, meadows, roadsides, fence rows, drainage areas, wetland borders, and even cities or severely eroded sterile soils. It prefers full sun but tolerates light to moderate shade and is both flood-tolerant and drought-resistant. Its seeds have a low germination rate but remain viable for decades, so it spreads slowly and will persist along wooded edges and sparsely forested areas.
Problem: Once Chinese lespedeza gains a foothold, it can crowd out or suppress native plants and develop an extensive seed bank in the soil, ensuring its long residence at a site. It forms dense stands by sprouting stems from its root crowns. Like many other members of the pea family, it is a nitrogen fixer, so it adds nitrogen to the soil, resulting in a richer soil. This may encourage further infestation by other non-native plants and exclude any native species which may be adapted to poor soil conditions.
Control: Mowing Chinese lespedeza as low to the ground as possible for two or three consecutive years can help to reduce the vigor of its stands and control further spread. For more complete control, herbicide treatments are necessary. Treatments should be completed in late summer, just before flowering, since root reserves increase up to the flower bud stage. A 2% solution of Triclopyr, a 0.5% solution of clopyralid, or Metsulfuron (Escort) at 0.75-1 oz./ac. can be effective, and treatments should cover the leaves and stems of the plants to the point of runoff. Mowing 1-3 months before herbicide application can assist control efforts.
USE PESTICIDES WISELY: Always read the entire pesticide label carefully, follow all mixing and application instructions and wear all recommended personal protective gear and clothing. Contact your state department of agriculture for any additional pesticide use requirements, restrictions or recommendations.