Authors: Sandy Stevens, eds. Mandy Tu, Barry Rice and John Randall, Global Invasive Species Team, The Nature Conservancy
- Lespedeza cuneata is an upright semi-woody forb reaching 3-6 ft. (0.9-1.8 m) in height with one to many slender stems. Stems are often gray green with lines of hairs along the stem.
- Leaves are thin, alternate, abundant and three-parted. Leaflets have wedge-shaped bases and are 0.5-1 in. (1.3-2.5 cm) long and hairy.
- Flowering occurs from July to September, when small, creamy-white flowers with purple throats develop in clusters of two to four.
- Fruit is a flat ovate to round single-seeded pod 0.12-0.15 in. (3-4 mm) wide. Pods are clustered in terminal axils, scattered along the stem, and clasped by persistent sepals.
- Ecological Threat
- Lespedeza cuneata is an extremely aggressive invader of open areas and out competes native vegetation. Once established, Lespedeza cuneata is very difficult to remove due to the seed bank which may remain viable for decades. Native to Asia and introduced into the United States in the late 1800s, it has been widely planted for erosion control, mine reclamation and wildlife habitat.
DESCRIPTION AND DIAGNOSTIC CHARACTERISTICS
Lespedeza cuneata is an aggressive warm-season perennial legume (in the family Fabaceae/Leguminosae). It is a shrubby, copiously branched plant with ascending stems. The plant can reach a height of two meters in loamy soils and has an extensive taproot that can extend up to 120 cm or more. Juvenile plants have only one stem that can have many top branches. In winter, food reserves are stored in the underground taproot and old stems die back. New stems arise from root crown buds in early spring and increasing numbers of stems are produced each year. A single plant is able to form a large stand that can live over 20 years.
L. cuneata can be distinguished by leaf shape, flower color, and by its general growth form. L. cuneata is the only species within the genus Lespedeza with cuneate or wedge-shaped leaf bases. Flowers are creamy-white with purple throats. When mature, L. cuneata has numerous tall, coarse stems that grow in bunches. Juveniles of L. cuneata can be distinguished from the closely related slender lespedeza (L. virginica, a native) by its large coarse stems (versus few weak stems).
Leaves of L. cuneata are trifoliate and have a short petiole (usually 0.0 to 0.5 mm long). Each leaflet is 5 to 25 mm long and 1.5 to 6 mm wide, with densely flattened hairs that give a grayish-green or silvery appearance. The apex of each leaflet is rounded or truncate, and bears a small, pointed tip. Leaflet bases are cuneate (wedge-shaped). Thread-like or awl-shaped stipules, typically 3 to 11 mm long, are also present.
L. cuneata blooms from July through October, and has flowers of two types: chasmogamous (petaliferous) flowers or cleistogamous (apetalous) flowers. Petals of the chasmogamous flowers are typically cream-white to yellow-white in color, and the upper-most (banner) petal can have pink- or purple-colored veins. The calyx is 3 to 4 mm long. Chasmogamous flowers grow in clusters of 1 to 4 flowers per leaf axis. Cleistogamous flowers of L. cuneata are always self-fertilized (versus cross-fertilized in chasmogamous flowers), typically do not open, and do not have showy petals. Cleistogamous flowers have a calyx 1.5 to 2.0 mm long and are generally scattered amongst the chasmogamous flowers.
Fruits of L. cuneata are 3 to 5 mm long and are glabrous or with appressed hairs. Seeds are shiny, slightly flattened, ellipsoid to oval, and are either tan, olive, purple, or a mottled brown color. Seeds from the two flower types can easily be distinguished from each other by their shape and size.
L. cuneata is considered an invasive weed in rangelands and grasslands of the Midwest and eastern United States, and is listed as a noxious weed in Kansas and Colorado. It is also listed on the Southeast Exotic Pest Plant Council’s List as a Category 1 species, indicating that is known to be invasive and persistent throughout all or most of their range within the Southern Region. In some parts of the U.S., L. cuneata is still valued for controlling erosion along roadsides and for forage, and a websearch in November 2002 yielded several nurseries and seed companies (mostly in the southeast and eastern U.S.) that offer L. cuneata for these purposes.
L. cuneata is an aggressive species that was introduced from Asia for use as forage and hay production on poor soils, and for erosion control in the southeastern United States. It can flourish where other plants have difficulty growing, such as on eroded, infertile soils. It is drought resistant, is rarely bothered by insects or disease, produces numerous seed and abundant forage, and is a long-lived perennial. Because of these characteristics, L. cuneata was first introduced and highly valued by agronomists for crops, forage, and soil conservation in the 1940s.
L. cuneata grows well in grasslands, pastures, along roadsides, drainage areas, fence rows, and in other disturbed areas. Mature stands of L. cuneata are difficult to control in natural areas. The deep root system makes removal of the plant by digging or pulling extremely difficult. Extensive cutting efforts (by mowing or plowing) are generally not feasible, as L. cuneata typically grows in rough, rocky areas. Such cutting efforts may also greatly disturb native plant populations.
Spring burns are not effective for controlling the spread of L. cuneata, as new shoots sprout almost immediately after fire. Dormant season controlled burns can also promote L. cuneata. Fire scarifies seeds of L. cuneata, promoting germination and seedling establishment on open, bare ground.
L. cuneata is not susceptible to several common herbicides, such as 2,4-D, picloram, and dicamba. Triclopyr, glyphosate, clopyralid, and metsulfuron methyl, however, have been shown to be effective in the control of L. cuneata.
L. cuneata is best controlled by an integrated management approach that combines mechanical and chemical methods. Late summer burns can decrease adult plant vigor, removes seeds from that year, and decrease seedling survival. Similarly, mowing plants in the flower-bud stage for two to three consecutive years can reduce the vigor of stands and control further spread. Good control can be achieved by mowing followed by a herbicide treatment in early to mid summer. A 2% solution of triclopyr or a 0.5% solution of clopyralid is effective during the vegetative stage prior o branching or during flowering. In wet sites, a 2% solution of glyphosate is effective from late June to seed set.
L. cuneata is native to Asia and Australia. It is a common native plant in Korea, China, Taiwan, India, Australia, and on the Japanese islands of Hokkaido, Honshu, Shikoku, and Kyushu. It was introduced to the southeastern United States in the 1800s for forage and soil conservation. It has also been introduced to South Africa, Brazil, Canada, and Mexico.
In the United States, L. cuneata occurs in Alabama, Arkansas, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Nebraska, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, West Virginia, and Wisconsin.
IMPACTS & THREATS POSED
L. cuneata establishes readily on eroded and disturbed soils, or in nutrient poor soils. It thrives on bottomland sites, and can become a major problem along roadways, drainages, trails, and at burned sites. Its deep taproot enables it to outcompete native plants for water and nutrients, especially during periods of prolonged drought.
Although originally introduced as a forage plant, L. cuneata has stems that become tough and unpalatable unless kept continually mowed or grazed. The number of stems produced by each plant increases each year, until large pure stands are formed that can take over entire fields. In natural areas, these stands can become so dense that native plants are reduced. L. cuneata also produces chemicals, such as tannins, that can inhibit the growth of other plants and promote the formation of pure stands of L. cuneata.
L. cuneata is still used for erosion control along highways and around reservoirs, and is planted as cover for quail. L. cuneata readily escapes from cultivation into native grasslands and agricultural areas, and can seriously impact natural areas.
L. cuneata is adapted to a wide range of conditions. It is cultivated for pasture, from which it often escapes, and may also be found in grazed woodlands. Large areas of rangeland have been seeded with this and other forage species. In its native range in Asia, L. cuneata grows on exposed ground and grassy lowlands. In North America, L. cuneata occurs in disturbed habitats such as along roads, ditches, railroad tracks, and other moist disturbed places. It is often found as a weed in cultivated areas, fallow and abandoned fields, meadows, and marshes.
L. cuneata is adapted to a wide range of climatic conditions, is tolerant of drought, and grows best where annual rainfall is over 76 to 89 cm (30 to 35 in). It prefers winters that are dry and summers that are wet. Stands of L. cuneata can survive freezing winter temperatures, but are often damaged by late spring freezes. L. cuneata can survive flooding for up to ten days in cool, moving water, but cannot survive prolonged periods submerged in warm water.
L. cuneata can grow in shallow soils, but grows best in deep soils, such as deep sands with organic matter or sandy loams with clay loam subsoil. It has successfully invaded the deep, well-drained loess soils of Mississippi, Tennessee, Kentucky, and the deep red soils of the Piedmont Plateau (Appalachian Highlands). L. cuneata will also grow on strongly acidic to neutral soils, but prefers soil pH of 6.0 to 6.5.
ECOLOGY & BIOLOGY
L. cuneata is a shrubby aggressive perennial. Its competitive ability and persistence are increased by a lack of continuous grazing, burning at inappropriate times, high rates of disturbance, and by the allelopathic compounds it produces. It colonizes bare ground and grassland areas, and strongly competes with native species. L. cuneata can invade open, natural communities and displace native species. It grows best in deep well-drained soils with adequate moisture, and is somewhat suppressed in shallow soils. L. cuneata can sprout from root buds after burning or mowing, and a combination of burning, herbicide application, and mowing is required for adequate control of this weed.
L. cuneata can reproduce by seeds, as well as spread vegetatively, forming dense stands with many upright stems. Mature plants begin growth earlier in spring than most other plants. Crown buds produce new shoots each year, which are tender and succulent until they reach a height of 30 to 38 cm. Older stems become coarse and woody unless they are continuously mowed or grazed. Plants have only one stem the first year, but the density of stems increases with the age of the plants. Dense stands of L. cuneata may produce 5 to 30 stems in four years, and isolated plants have been documented to produce over a hundred stems. Stands can live for over 20 years, and regrowth following clipping is from lateral buds.
Flowering & Fruiting
Flowers of L. cuneata typically bloom from July to October in the U.S., with the production of chasmogamous flowers preceding the production of the cleistogamous flowers. Daylength, amount of light available, and temperature determine the quantity of each type of flower produced, and numbers of seeds produced.  
Seed production is also affected by weather conditions, pollination of the chasmogamous flowers by honeybees and other insects, and the time and frequency of cutting treatments. Greater numbers of seeds are generally produced in years with high rainfall and in years when bee populations are high.
Clipping or grazing during the growing season lessens seed yields. Frequent cutting increases the proportion of cleistogamous flowers, and therefore, reduces the proportion and absolute number of chamogamous seeds produced.
Seed & Seedling Biology
L. cuneata reproduces both vegetatively and sexually. The seeds produced from by chasmogamous (outcrossed) flowers do not germinate well unless they are scarified. Temperature and daylength affect rates of seedling emergence and rates of seedling growth. The optimum temperature range for germination is 20° to 30° C. Seedling emergence is reduced 20% with each 3° C reduction in day/night temperatures. Seedling growth is best at 26°/22° C day/night temperatures and at 13 to 15 hour daylengths.
Little crossing occurs among different species of the genus Lespedeza. L. cuneata can produce viable hybrids from crossings with L. latissima, L. inschanica, and L. hedysaroides. No viable hybrids, however, have been obtained from crosses between American perennial Lespedeza species and other Asian Lespedeza species, or when perennial Lespedeza species attempt to hybridize with annual Lespedeza species. Hybrids were also not viable when crossing between species with different chromosome numbers.
ECONOMIC & OTHER USES
L. cuneata was widely planted in the southeastern U.S. as early as the 1900s as forage for livestock. This warm-season perennial forage has high yields and tolerates a wide range of different soil, temperature, and moisture conditions. Cattle prefer L. cuneata new growth with fine pliable stems and low tannin content, and eat seeds before frost. L. cuneata provides good forage for goats; it is however, not good forage for dairy cattle or for hogs.
Allelopathic compounds in L. cuneata, such as tannins, inhibit the growth of other plants while also making it unpalatable to animals. The leaves of L. cuneata are higher in tannin content than the stems, and the upper portions of the plant tend to be higher in tannin content than the lower stems. As the plant ages, levels of tannins also increase, and grazers will often cease to feed on L. cuneata if other palatable forage is available.
L. cuneata is not an important food for native birds or mammals. Some herbivores will eat L. cuneata, but only early in the season when shoots are tender or when no other food is available. As the plants age, tannin content within the plant increases and the stems become more coarse, woody, and unpalatable.
L. cuneata is sometimes used as cover for wildlife on crop fields bordering woods. L. bicolor (bicolored lespedeza, an exotic) is often planted next to woods with L. cuneata planted along the remainder of the border. Quail, grasshopper sparrows, meadowlarks, and greater prairie chickens have been documented to build nests in L. cuneata plants and bobwhite quail consume seeds of L. cuneata.
Planting & Reclamation
L. cuneata is planted for erosion control and soil conservation on roadways, waterways and outlets, dams, field borders, strip mine spoils, and other places that are easily eroded. Thick stands of L. cuneata are usually not achieved, however, for several years. Quick growing grasses (generally exotics) are usually planted to protect the soils from erosion until L. cuneata can develop large stands. Black locust (Robinia pseudoacacia) has also been planted with L. cuneata on strip mine spoils. L. cuneata should not be planted where it can easily spread into adjacent prairie and other natural grasslands.
Potential for Restoration of Invaded Sites
The potential for large-scale restoration of wildlands infested with L. cuneata is probably low, unless the entire area is continually treated for several consecutive years. Complete elimination of L. cuneata is difficult. If control efforts are applied when the infestation is still small, there is a moderate to high potential for restoration.
Spraying can kill mature plants, but large numbers of viable seeds can remain in the seed bank for several years. Pastures and rangelands must also be monitored for several years to determine if L. cuneata is completely destroyed. Disturbed areas have a high potential for invasion by L. cuneata. Plants are difficult to identify in the first year of growth and can develop into large stands before they are noticed. It is difficult to find and spray all the plants in an area. Unless the continued planting of L. cuneata along highways and around reservoirs is stopped, it will be extremely difficult to control.
The best control of L. cuneata combines both mechanical and chemical treatments. Hand pulling is impractical due to its extensive perennial root system, but mowing plants at the flower bud stage for two to three consecutive years can significantly reduce the vigor of stands as well as control further spread. Mowing followed by a herbicide treatment is likely the most effective option for the successful control of L. cuneata.
The increasing range of L. cuneata can be slowed if it is no longer sold or planted as erosion control along highways or around reservoirs. Its use as a forage plant should also be halted. Listing of L. cuneata as a noxious species will facilitate stopping its spread.
Most current management procedures require the use of herbicides to control the growth and expansion of L. cuneata. Metsulfuron methyl (Escort®), triclopyr (Garlon®), clopyralid (Transline®) and glyphosate (RoundUp®) are some herbicides that are known to control L. cuneata. Herbicide should be applied to L. cuneata in early to midsummer, during the flower bud stage. A 2% triclopyr solution or a 0.5% clopyralid solution is effective in controlling L. cuneata during the vegetative stage prior to branching or during flowering. In wet sites, a 2% solution of an aquatic-approved glyphosate formulation (Rodeo®, Aquamaster®) is effective from early summer until seed set.
Prescribed burning, by itself, does not control populations of L. cuneata. Spring burns actually stimulate resprouting and encourage seed germination. Even so, prescribed burns applied late in the season and in combination with other control methods can help control L. cuneata. Late season burns decrease mature L. cuneata vigor, remove that year’s seeds, and decrease seedling survival. Following a late season burn, herbicide can be applied, then mowed for good control results.
In natural areas management, monitoring programs will likely need to assess changes in abundance of both L. cuneata and desirable native species as well as other changes in desirable community attributes. Such programs should have explicit objectives that can be measured and that are meaningful from both a biological and management standpoint. Monitoring the status of other conservation targets, such as invertebrates dependent on specific nectar sources, may be more important than tracking invasives. In general, the monitoring objectives should support and conform to the management objectives.
Monitoring change in both untreated and treated areas can be an effective and powerful way of determining whether or not any detected changes have resulted from management activities. Since L. cuneata acts as an early successional species in some systems, declines in abundance may occur over time without management.
Further research is needed on the impacts of L. cuneata on natural areas, and on the effects of L. cuneata control programs on native species, especially where grassland communities are conservation targets. More information is also needed on selective control measures. Field experiments with timing of burns, different grazing or mowing regimes, and herbicide combinations are also needed. Several insects may damage L. cuneata (e.g., the three-cornered alfalfa leaf hopper (Spissistulus festinus), grass army worms (Pseudodaleta unipunta), grasshoppers (Schistocerca americana) and the lespedeza webworm (Tetralopha scortealis)), but more needs to be learned before they could be intentionally augmented or released to control the plants.
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