Missouri's Silent Thief

Sericea lespedeza is an invasive, non-native plant that is cropping up on Missouri roadsides, in pastures, along waterways, and even in the shade of forest edges. Because of its hardiness and ability to spread, this perennial legume threatens to displace native plants.

Like many native plants we see outdoors, sericea lespedeza is lush and green with pretty summer flowers. Planting sericea lespedeza was once promoted as an erosion control measure. The plant was also considered acceptable forage for both cattle and wildlife. We now know that sericea lespedeza is, in fact, aggressive and potentially harmful.

Sericea lespedeza (Lespedeza cuneata) is native to eastern Asia. It first showed up in America in the 1800s. Often called "poor man's alfalfa," it was initially used on a large scale in the U.S. as a pasture crop. It first appeared in Missouri in the 1930s, when it was planted as forage for livestock and to control erosion on roadsides and strip-mined land. It also was thought to provide wildlife food and cover.

Through recent study, however, we now know that sericea's disadvantages far outweigh any possible benefits. Its root system, a combination of a taproot and a small set of fibrous roots at the surface, is not like the heavy, deep and fibrous root system of native grasses. Therefore, native grasses work much better for erosion control.

Although it is high in crude protein, sericea is a poor nutritional source for animals. Wildlife, such as quail, will eat sericea seeds, but the energy contained in the seeds will not sustain them through extreme weather conditions. Quail and other ground nesting birds may not even be able to fully digest sericea seeds because of their hard outer layer.

In addition, high tannin levels reduce both the digestibility and the palatability of mature sericea. Cattle will only eat the very young plants. Sericea inevitably stands out as one of the least desirable forages in a heavily grazed pasture. Although a lower tannin variety of sericea has been developed and is commonly baled for hay in the southeastern U.S., its tannin levels are still considered too high for it to be considered a quality food source for cattle.

Currently, sericea lespedeza ranges from the Atlantic coast to the Midwest, and it continues to spread. In Missouri, it can be found in every county. It is most common in the southern, central and western counties. Once you know what