Lespedeza. Judging by the sound of it, you’d think it was an island off the coast of Italy. And the plant that bears its name certainly looks Mediterranean. Yet, I had never heard of this magnificent, fall-blooming shrub until a client of mine showed me a pair in her garden. Here’s why I’ve been a fan ever since.
SOME BLACK SHEEP IN THE FAMILY
It turns out that while I may have been uninformed, the genus lespedeza has quite a reputation. A member of the pea family, it comprises over 40 flowering plant species. These include shrubs and trailing vines, some of which are grown as ornamental plants and others for forage or to prevent erosion. But some species exhibit some downright deviant behavior.
Take for example Lespedeza striata, commonly known as Japanese clover. A ground-hugging annual, it forms dinner-plate size patches of dark green leaves with wiry stems. In late summer it produces a mass of tiny pink flowers. The downside is it also delights in choking out turf.
Lespedeza striata, commonly known as Japanese clover
Then there’s Lespedeza cuneata, an extremely aggressive warm-season perennial. Also known as Chinese bush clover, it was brought to the United States from Asia in the late 1800s to prevent erosion. However, it rapidly began invading open spaces, out-competing native vegetation. Now the upright, gray-green shrub with cream flowers is classified as an invasive weed in the Midwest and eastern United States.
LESPEDEZA THUNBERGII, THE STAR OF THE GENUS
But, there is a member of the family who is considered the star of the genus. Relatively unknown to the home garden, it is the species Lespedeza thunbergii (also known as bush clover.) Recipient of the Royal Horticultural Society’s (RHS) Award of Garden Merit, it boasts beautiful blue-green foliage, cascading panicles of rosy-pink flowers and a dramatic fountain-like appearance.
Moreover, unlike other family members, bush clover sticks to its place. Slowly developing over the summer into a roughly 6-foot mound, this beautiful shrub spends August and September laden with thousands of tiny pink flowers. It’s a burst of color just when you least expect it, and at a time when most other perennials are losing their luster.
DESIGNING WITH LESPEDEZA
Designing with Lespedeza thunbergii offers many opportunities. Given its large size, the shrub is a natural for the back of the border (or used as a specimen.) Although it will tolerate some shade, it flowers best in full sun, where is combines beautifully with other fall-blooming perennials like caryopteris, Russian sage, asters and chrysanthemums.
At my client’s home, we’ve gone for a spring-like approach, pairing her shrubs with ‘Little Lime’ hydrangeas, apricot shrub roses, Icy Pink vinca and the upright swords of bearded iris. Anthony Waterer spirea, Longwood Blue caryopteris and white Japanese anemones provide subtle background color.
To date, the only other place I’ve found Lespedeza thunbergii is at Maryland’s Brookside Gardens, where last fall, I spied it displayed in one of their formal gardens. Here, their staff paired it with Autumn Joy sedum, giant hyssop, maiden grass, pink anemones and purple top vervain to form a stunning combination.
Brookside Garden’s fall display
Bush clover flowers on new wood, so you can prune it anytime without shaving off next season’s blooms. Most people cut stems to the ground in late winter. It’s astonishing to watch the shrub bounce back over the summer months into a large, bluish-green sphere as big as most men.
Deer resistant and virtually pest and disease-free, bush clover grows in zones 4-8. The roots are winter hardy to USDA zone 6, but expect the top growth to die back during the winter. (For more about the USDA Plant Hardiness Map and how to use it, click here.)
LESPEDEZA OWES ITS NAME TO A TYPO
Lespedeza owes its name to Vicente Manuel de Céspedes who served as governor of the Spanish province of East Florida from 1784-1790. Céspedes gave botanist André Michaux permission to explore East Florida in search of new species.
Michaux ended up discovering the flowering species, which he named in honor of the governor. Unfortunately, when he published his book in 1802, the name de Céspedes was misspelled as de lespedez. The current botanical name lespedeza allegedly derives from this mistake.