Lead Plant

Illustration of lead plant stem, leaves, flower clusters, flowers, fruit.
Scientific Name
Amorpha canescens
Fabaceae (beans)

Lead plant is a small, branching, shrubby perennial. It is densely hairy and can become woody with age, but some winters it dies back to the ground.

Flowers are tiny, massed in tight, elongated spikes; stamens with reddish filaments and yellow anthers protrude from lavender or purple flowers. The corolla is reduced to a single, top petal (the “sail”), lacking the other petals (the “wings” and “keel”) common in pea-family flowers. Blooms May–August.

Leaves are alternate, feather-compound, to 4 inches long, with up to 5 rounded, short, gray-hairy leaflets each to about ¾ inch long and ½ inch wide.

Similar species: Indigo bush (A. fruticosa) is a large, bushy shrub, lacking hair, to 6 or even 10 feet tall. Its leaflets are up to 2 inches long and 1 inch wide. It is found in streamside thickets and moist prairie areas.

Height: to 3 feet.
Where To Find
image of Lead Plant distribution map
Statewide except in the Southeast Lowlands.
Occurs in prairies, glades, and savannas. This is a true prairie plant. Its deep roots enable it to survive the occasional fires that keep native prairies from turning into forests.
The name “lead plant” apparently came from the antique belief that this plant grew in places where lead was in the ground, indicating that metal’s presence. Maybe the association arose from the grayish look of the foliage. It is true that an area in southeast Missouri, around the towns of Potosi and Ironton, has long been the center of an important lead-mining district. However, the lead-mining areas hardly correspond with the much wider distribution of lead plant.
Native Americans had many medicinal uses for lead plant. Today, lead plant is seen as an indicator not of lead but of high-quality prairie. It is also fairly popular as a drought-resistant flowering shrub in native wildflower gardening.
As with other legumes, lead plant’s roots fix atmospheric nitrogen, converting it to a soil nutrient that plants can use, improving soils. The flowers of lead plant are visited by bees, wasps, and other insects. Rabbits, deer, and other mammals relish the foliage. Many insects eat the foliage, too.
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Similar Species

Where to See Species

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About Trees, Shrubs and Woody Vines in Missouri
There are no sharp dividing lines between trees, shrubs, and woody vines, or even between woody and nonwoody plants. “Wood” is a type of tissue made of cellulose and lignin that many plants develop as they mature — whether they are “woody” or not. Trees are woody plants over 13 feet tall with a single trunk. Shrubs are less than 13 feet tall, with multiple stems. Vines require support or else sprawl over the ground.