An erect or prostrate annual with weak roots, forming ground-covering colonies. Flowers near ends of leafy branches, small, typical pea flowers, white and either pink or purple. Blooms July–October. Leaves alternate, on stalks, trifoliate (3 leaflets in cloverleaf configuration), leaflets oblong, wider toward the notched tips, to ½ inch long. Edges of leaves with hairs. Stipules at base of leaf stalks broad, pointed, tan, conspicuous, lacking hairs. Hairs on stems point toward the tip of the plant, not the base.
Similar species: Common lespedeza (K. striata) has leaves that are nearly stalkless, and the hairs on the stems point toward the base of the plant. The margins of the leaves are not notably hairy.
Height: 4–8 inches.
Common throughout Missouri.
Habitat and Conservation
Occurs along roadsides and railroads, fields, pastures, open woods, and glades. This Asian plant was introduced to North America to prevent erosion, to feed wildlife and livestock (as both pasturage and hay), and, since it is a legume, to add nitrogen to the soil. Introduced to the United States by the USDA in 1919, it spread quickly in Missouri after about 1930.
In the 1930s, severe drought, overgrazing, and agriculture that stripped the land caused the American Dust Bowl. Erosion and dust storms ruined agriculture and displaced families on an unprecedented scale. To conserve soil, land managers sought fast-spreading plants to hold the soil.
Bees and other insects visit the flowers, and a variety of caterpillars, leaf miners, and other insects eat the leaves. Quail, turkey, sparrows, and other birds eat the seeds, and deer and other herbivorous mammals browse the foliage.