Sunday, June 12, 2011


            Okay, I admit it. I’m frazzled today. Over the past week and a half, both our air-conditioning unit / heat pump and the refrigerator decided 13 years of non-stop service was enough, and expired. I hate shopping in the first place: shopping for appliances vies with shopping for cars in the race for last place on my shopping continuum. (Groceries rank first.) Nonetheless, it had to be done. And was. Fairly painlessly, too, on the whole (if you don’t count the expenditures).  

            But it wasn’t fun.

            Then the weekly paper reported our town government plans to cut water and sewer rates by 4.8% across the board. In the Bizarro-World that is Oak Island, this more than likely means monthly utility bills will hit the stratosphere. Our state-of-the-art sewer system, the previous administration’s edifice complex and an on-going trend for town employees to outnumber non-town employees are going to impoverish all 6200 of us for generations.

            That’s not fun to contemplate, either.

            Then my friend Sally, editor of American Nurseryman, a trade magazine, needed a pinch-hitter for July’s “Field Notes,” so she asked me to help out. “Field Notes” is a regular feature of the magazine, profiling garden-worthy plants. As I covered the living room floor with reference books and dove into my photo files for pictures, Idea-Man Tim says, “You could start a periodic ‘Field Notes’ blog post too. It would be useful, and you won’t have to write two separate pieces this weekend.”

            I can’t tell you how lucky, and how endlessly grateful I am that this man found me, said yes when I asked him to marry me, and hangs in there despite me not being the very easiest person in the whole world to live with. Not only that, he’s brilliant.

            And that is fun.

            So here it is, the inaugural GFTGU Field Notes post. (If you subscribe to American Nurseryman, you can give its “Field Notes” entry for July a pass.)


       Lespedeza thunbergii
 As a professional gardener, I’m always on the lookout for under-utilized plants to break the ho-hum factor in landscapes. I especially covet ones that flower. Tell me about an under-utilized, flowering and low-maintenance specimen: even better. Toss in a high level of deer resistance, and I’ve hit the jackpot. I’ve found Lespedeza thunbergii.

            That Lespedeza thunbergii—a.k.a. Thunberg bush-clover—belongs to the family Fabaceae is immediately evident. Smooth, blue-green, trifoliate leaves clothe supple branches that arch gracefully earthward. Six-inch-long racemes of pendant pink, rosy purple or white pea-like blooms appear on the upper portions of shoots, combining to form panicles up to 30 inches in length. Here in southeastern North Carolina, flowering begins in late April or early May. After taking a break during the sultriest weeks of high summer—as does anything with any sense—bloom recommences, peaking in September and continuing well into November.

            It’s a mystery to me why such a lovely, easy-care plant isn’t more common in the trade hereabouts. Introduced to Western gardens from China and Japan in 1837, this herbaceous subshrub dies back to the ground after hard frost, even in Zone 8b. Prune the stems down to six inches in late winter, then stand back: bush-clover can reach a height of over six feet and an equal or greater spread in a single season.

Lespedeza thunbergii 'Pink Cascade'
In the four years since I started using L. thunbergii in client gardens, I have observed no disease problems despite summertime round-the-clock oppressive heat and humidity levels, nor any pest damage, not even a sample nibble from the deer herds that plague our area. Thriving in full-sun locations, its form is just as lovely in up to half-day shade, but flowering diminishes. Although it shines brightest in moist, rich soils, it performs nearly as well on hot, dry sites. Propagation couldn’t be simpler: whack a couple suckers off the main plant and pot them up. Transplanted seedlings take readily to life in containers as well.

Lespedeza appears to have no pH preference. It grows equally well for me in the basic sand of coastal North Carolina as in the heavy, acid soils of north Georgia. In the fifth edition of his Manual of Woody Landscape Plants, Dr. Michael Dirr describes Thunberg bush-clover as “…really the beauty… of the genus.” (See Good Reads at right. While it's not as thrilling as the latest Caleb Carr, the Manual is a primo reference for tree and shrubs.)   

Two cultivars occasionally come available in the local trade: ‘Pink Cascade,’ with pink flowers and a slightly more compact habit than the species; and ‘Gibraltar,’ with deep rose-hued blooms that Dr. Dirr finds difficult to distinguish from the species. Allegedly, ‘Alba,’ a more upright, white-flowering version, and ‘Variegata,’ with white-streaked foliage and rose-purple blooms, exist out there somewhere.  

In the landscape, Lespedeza thunbergii works as a specimen, in perennial gardens or as part of a shrubbery. I’ve alternated it with pruned Loropetalum chinense var. rubrum ‘Ruby’ to screen a garage, and dotted it along the perimeter of a large corner lot to unify an otherwise eclectic mixed planting. It’s got a beautiful shape, clean blue-green foliage, a long bloom period; it’s low-maintenance, and Bambi doesn’t like it. Who could ask for anything more?

Close-up of Lespedeza thunbergii 'Pink Cascade' flowers and foliage

BOTANICAL NAME:  Lespedeza thunbergii cvv.

COMMON NAME:  Thunberg bush-clover

HARDINESS:  USDA Zones 5/6-11



CLASSIFICATION:  Herbaceous subshrub

LANDSCAPE USE:  Specimen, perennial gardens, mixed shrubberies

ORNAMENTAL CHARACTERISTICS:  Smooth, trifoliate blue-green foliage; 6” racemes of pink, rose-purple or white flowers form panicles up to 30” long; graceful, arching habit; ease of maintenance; highly resistant to deer browse


            There. Lespedeza’s one of my all-time favorite plants for all of the reasons listed above. If you simply must have one for your yard and live near Oak Island, Tim and I have nine healthy one-gallon starts available for seven bucks a pop. Contact me by email, or ask about them in the comments section. (As if.) Transplanted Garden on 16th Street in Wilmington also carries Lespedeza, probably three-gallon ones, but I’m not positive they’re L. thunbergii.  

            Thanks for dropping by. I’m sure I’ll be feeling better by next time.