Ask someone to describe sericea lespedeza or Chinese bushclover, and nothing is likely to come to mind. A nearly nondescript weed to the untrained eye, lespedeza is notable as a perennial plant, generally less than five feet tall, found most frequently along roadsides and in fields, consisting of erect, occasionally woody stems, sometimes branched, with leaves alternating and in three segments.
History and Identification
Sericea lespedeza is an eastern Asian native, introduced to the United States by the North Carolina Agricultural Experiment Station in 1896. In 1924, the USDA obtained seed from Japan and introduced it to Virginia’s Arlington Experiment Farm. The Virginia Tech Weed Guide provides some easily recognizable images of sericea lespedeza. For many more images, including those of the seeds of sericea lespedeza, see this Invasive.org image search URL.
Spread of Lespedeza
Interestingly, lespedeza seeds must experience scarification to germinate. This generally occurs through exposure to acid in the digestive tracts of birds, etc., although fire may also improve germination. Movement of hay containing lespedeza seeds facilitates spread. Sericea lespedeza, interestingly, makes up a considerable portion of the diet of the bobwhite quail in the southeastern United States. Sericea lespedeza seems to do best where surrounding weeds and light is abundantly available to germinating seed. Even though sericea lespedeza is generally considered a weed worthy of eradication, is it completely without beneficial uses? By no means.
Positive Aspects and Future Prospects
Sericea lespedeza serves as a cover for some small wildlife, including rabbits. A perennial legume, sericea lespedeza is drought resistant, and capable of being heavily grazed, if only animals would eat it. The difficulty is that the original form introduced is rich in tannins, which are unappealing to livestock. To alleviate that difficulty, new strains are being developed to improve forage quality and increase nematode resistance. Auburn University in Alabama points out that lespedeza is non-bloating, disease-resistant, and rarely attacked by insects. It tolerates soil of poor fertility and tolerates high acidity. Rather than depleting soil, sericea lespedeza builds soil.
Once again, an unfortunate situation has arisen through human introduction of a foreign species. For this reason, sericea lespedeza is viewed as a problematic pest; yet with research and development, this pest may yet prove to be a positive influence and improvement in modern agriculture, especially in areas with poor soils.
Missouri Department of Conservation – Sericea Lespedeza
PCA Alien Plant Working Group – Chinese Lespedeza
K-State Research and Extension – Sericea Lespedeza: History, Characteristics, and Identification