taking a long look at lespedeza thunbergii

chairs facing viewI AM TRYING TO TAKE  A LONG VIEW OF THINGS, looking ahead to a beautiful fall and winter but also noticing plants that manage to shine despite all they’ve been through in this wacky weather year. One such beauty: Lespedeza thunbergii, the bush clover, a giant of a perennial that blooms in August and September in a cascade of rosy-purple. It’s the centerpiece of a big grass border here, and you can see it from all the way across the yard.

My plant, the cultivar ‘Gibraltar,’ was a hand-me-down from a public-garden friend who had extras, and for years did well here beside a young lilac. But then the lilac grew, and the bush clover got shaded, and started to weaken.

A rescue mission a few years back landed it in the sun again, and that’s what the bush clover wanted.

lespedeza 3
Lespedeza thunbergii, a legume or pea relative as the shape of its flowers and foliage quickly gives away, is hardy in Zones 4-9. Give it sun, and not much else—well, except a very large space to grow into, as the arching stems of a mature bush clover will reach 6 feet across or wider, and stands nearly 6 feet high. My resurrected, relocated ‘Gibraltar’ is closing in on 8 feet across today.

Various white forms, like ‘Albiflora’ or ‘White Fountain,’ are another possibility (I like the gaudier purple) and because he must always outdo us, plantsman Tony Avent offers the 4-by-6-foot ‘Spilt Milk,’ with purple flowers but wildly variegated foliage as its name implies, along with several others.

This is just one of the big-boy perennials I’m thankful for at this transitional time of year, ones that might be welcome in your not-summer-not-fall garden, too. Can you make room?

  1. Lee (a.k.a. Riveted) says:

    Lovely and delicate, cascading texture and color. Although it’s probably far from related, it reminds me of a vetch that is common in low-lying areas here in MI. Thanks for the introduction to another perennial that has made it onto my ‘must plant someday soon’ list.

  2. Lolo says:

    Oh my, I’ve had mine for three years now and all this time I thought it was a Baptista. You know, just like it said on the nursery tag. This year it’s blooming like mad and I’ve been so puzzled. “Really, why is the color not blue? …. hmmm”

    I’m really happy with it, regardless of the mix up and now I know what it actually is. I do want to move it though, since it’s far too large for where it’s living. Can I do that next spring without losing it?

  3. Nancy says:

    I went back to the “big-boys” post to look at the aralia spinosa and then read more about it…if it is thriving in zone 5B, it should do well in zone 6, where I am, but what about the spines–are they a problem? I like the idea of more plants with berries for the birds and have a sunny/shady place under the canopy where I had a non-thriving buddleia (no more…). The foliage is so beautiful…what are the drawbacks, if any?

  4. Rosella says:

    When I write my gardening book, I am going to call it “I Didn’t Know It Would Get THAT Big!”, and I will be thinking of the lespedeza that I planted last summer. Its label said “36-42 inches high”, with no mention of breadth. Before I cut it down last week, its fronds were 4 feet long, and were bathing the potted eggplant in delightful shade. Is it transplantable? I just saw one at Green Spring Gardens in my area, and it was 6 feet by 5 feet, gorgeous purpley-pink, but not at all as described on the nursery label that was with mine.

  5. Margaret says:

    @Nancy: Drawback with the woody Aralia is that it suckers/spreads, so not a well-behaved companion for many things. Give it its own space (great at woodland edge as transition to trees, or allowed to have a “glade” of its own like mine, which is above a wall on the garden side and bordering woods and a field on the other sides). One of the herbaceous ones, racemosa or cordata, would behave better.

    @Tracy: I had them made years ago by a friend, who adapted from a pattern sold on the Wave Hill public garden site. We made the wood heavier in most cases for a more substantial chair.

    @Lolo: Love the mistaken identity story. Happens all the time. Yes, move it in spring.

  6. virginiamorningstar says:

    Got your newsletter this morning and wanted to tell you to recheck the source for the chrysanthemum you like. . . I wrote to them to try and get one and was told they don’t carry them any more. Do you have any alternate sources, and maybe change the post/newsletter so other folks won’t have the same experience?

    1. Margaret says:

      @Virginiamorningstar: Thanks, yes, when I saw the clicks were leading to a bad link I changed it and added into the text that I would contact the owner. There is no source that I can find right now, though one may come together before next spring’s orders. I would look at the wide selection from Lazy S’s, which includes two other nice pinks: ‘Sheffield Pink’ (paler and very pretty) and ‘Cambodian Queen’ (medium pink).

  7. catjane says:

    I use a cage of green rabbit fencing around mine – growing in some shade. When I cut it down in the spring, I plunk the cage around it. As the season goes on, I just steer the growing stems to the inside of the cage. the cage becomes invisible in short order, and I keep some of the surrounding plants from being buried. A little extra work for a lovely, spectacular plant!

  8. Jayne says:

    I havent had success with the lespedeza; a friend has given it to me twice. It may be the location – as you pointed out. The cherry it is planted near may be providing too much shade.

    And what makes you think that we do not read your posts to hear about Jack! Believe me I understand about those 4 legged creatures – I have one that “came to live with us.” A most unwelcome guest but he is still here after 4 years….

  9. gardengirl says:

    Love this shrub, I have one too. Mine is located in MO. This is a gorgeous plant, spectacular is the word for it. I think planted in full sun they grow real upright and have cascading branches. Mine is in full sun and that is how it grows, it is about 5 yrs old. I highly recommend this plant for all gardens! It’s a lot like Butterfly Bush, looks dead in spring. Cut back until you see green wood. Last year I only cut a little off before seeing green wood.

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, gardengirl. Here it dies to the ground, not keeping any woody tissue alive above-ground (butterfly bush would here, at least a little bit). So it’s a herbaceous perennial in my experience, but definitely shrub size. Love it — glad to meet another fan of this great garden subject. See you soon!

  10. cara says:

    Oh, hooray. I googled “lespedeza” “dead or alive” and your authoritative answer came up. I’m in zone 7 and my two bush clovers, planted last fall, are still a bunch of dry sticks. I cut it back to a few inches and will patiently await the resurrection.

  11. Teri says:

    Hi – I just purchased a lespedeza (very small-under 1′) and am wondering what is the best way to care for it over the winter. I live in N. VA – zone 7A and didn’t want to chance planting this delicate plant as I didn’t think it would survive it’s first winter here. I presently have it potted indoors & the leaves are beginning to turn brown (not surprising – it’s fall). Should I just keep it indoors for the winter & plant after fear of frost in the spring?
    Thanks for any suggestions

    1. Margaret says:

      Definitely do not keep it indoors, Teri — it’s a hardy perennial and wants to get out in the ground and go dormant and so on. Plant it asap! Make sure when the ground freezes that it doesn’t heave up out of the ground — tuck it in well!

  12. Lisa says:

    I have Lespedeza thunbergii in my garden and when I planted it didn’t realize how big it would get, I need to move it and am having a really tough time with that. Have you ever moved it? Do you have an advice? I love it and don’t want to not have it in my yard. Thanks!

  13. Heather says:

    Sold! 3 of us from the DCA Greenhouse Group just picked these up at Broken Arrow Nursery (they know you well!).

    We look forward to your visit to Darien next January.

    : }

    1. margaret says:

      That’s hilarious, Heather. Good for you! Am looking forward to my visit to you as well. Probably not a good day to stop in at Broken Arrow in January, huh? :)

  14. Johnny says:

    We have 4 in our yard. Question: the oldest is about 5 years. Having problems this summer. It appears to be in stress. Does this plant have a short life span? The other younger three are thriving.

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Johnny. I am in the Northeast and mine just got better and better for more than 10 years…until 2 years ago rabbits gnawed it again and again till it weakened the plant and it could re-sprout no more. So my experience is that it seemed more long-lived (and in gentler climates it’s a woody shrub, by the way, not herbaceous, dying to the ground each winter like it does here).

  15. Cindy says:

    I’m new to your website but love it already! I was so happy to find more info on this plant.
    I came across a lespedenza at my local nursery today and bought one.
    My question is how will it do in NE FL? We go from drought in the spring to torrential rains during hurricane season!
    Thank you:)

    1. margaret says:

      I don’t know exactly where you are and what Zone you are in. The plant is rated to grow in Zones as warm as Zone 8B, but I suspect you are right on the cusp of Zone 9…or squarely in 9…so I’d try one plant at most and see what happens (unless you are more coastal and definitely a Zone 9). In northwestern Florida I’d say yes, but hard to say where you are.

  16. Phyllis says:

    My Lepedeza is incredible! Had no idea it was going to get this big but that’s OK.
    However, it is Sept 30 and I would love to move it. Will it die if I move it now or do
    I need to calm down and wait until Spring? It is still really green and in full bloom.
    p.s. I live in Atlanta, GA

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Phyllis. It’s the largest Miscanthus I can grow here, a very tall ornamental grass I know as Miscanthus ‘Giganteus.’ A herbaceous perennial, hardy to Zone 5 I believe. I have had it like 20 years; I cut it to the ground after winter has its way with it so there is nothing in that spot from late winter to when it starts really putting on size again in summer (new growth emerges in late May).

    2. margaret says:

      Hi, Phyllis. I am in the North, and I do move things in early and mid-fall, but I have never moved this giant thing. I would think it would be much easier on you and the plant to do it when dormant in late winter.

  17. Phyllis says:

    What are the very tall plants pictured here behind the Lespedeza?
    If it isn’t Bamboo, I would be very interested in this for privacy. Thank you!

  18. Miriam says:

    I know this is an old post but I just got a lespedeza thunbergii Gibraltar’ but planted it in the wrong spot. Can I move it? And when?

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