How Sericea Lespedeza came to South Africa

ReStory narrator: Willie Nel

During August 1982, three men (including John Fair) and I went on a tour of cultivated legume pastures in the United States of America.

Our first appointment was with Mr. Jo Hartlè of Lonely Spot Farm near the State College in Pennsylvania – he was just named the pasture farmer of the decade. The tar road going there led through deep cuttings where road workers were busy spraying the naked ridges of the cuttings with muddy slush. Seeds were mixed into this slush with the goal of growing plants that would stabilise and protect these ridges.

Down the road we noticed that seeds germinated and plants started to grow in this muddy slush. Further along the road we stopped and looked at these plants that stood on these ridges in their thousands, looking mush like Lucerne. Still further down the road, these plants have grown high and we stopped to photograph them.

We enquired about what we saw alongside the road and learnt that this was a legume by the name of Sericea Lespedeza. A legume that grew in shallow soil? Well that was something different…

When we arrived at Jo Hartlè, we asked about this plant. He confirmed that it was indeed a legume that not only grew in shallow soil or soil of poor quality, it also grew in acidic soil – soil with a low pH. Jo told us that regions of research and application of this legume was actually more toward the drier south states for example Georgia. We immediately changed our travel route and flew to Atlanta to meet with Mr. Brooks Pennington, an expert on this unique legume.

After having breakfast with him later that week, he took us to his farm where we saw fields of Sericea Lespedeza.

Brooks Pennington on his farm in Georgia, USA on fields of fully grown Sericea Lespedeza.

At first, we were not impressed with this stalky shrub that stood waist high. It was fully grown and used for seed production. However, when we saw the young succulent pastures, we were sold. This was undoubtedly the answers to our Highveld-problems, namely shallow and acidic soil. Currently, we planted the costly Eragrostis Curvula because of its affinity for nitrogen. But we could only imagine what the economic impact would be of replacing Eragrotis Curvula in South Africa with this legume!

Back in South Africa, we reported our findings to Mike Zingle, then-head of the Mayfords seed company. We requested that he import this seed – the interstate variety upon advice of Mr. Pennington.

Unfortunately, the seed arrived too late for the optimal planting season. However, I still planted the first seeds in February 1983 on overcropped fields on the farm Hertzog, which I just acquired. Germination was bad and most of the saplings died in the first frost at the end of April.

In November 1983, I replanted in between the surviving plants. But I had to work carefully, as many of the seeds from the February planting had started to germinate. After a year, John Fair suggested that I start over and re-plant the field from scratch as this was not looking successful at all.

My answer to John was simple. During our visit to Mr. Pennington, he said that when you plant Sericea, you close the gate and only open it again three years later. We planted out of season, only two years prior. Therefore, I “closed the gate” and did not even apply and fertilizer. During April 2014 – 30 years later – John Fair visited again and wrote an article on the first commercial planting of Sericea Lespedeza in South Africa. It was published in Farmer’s Weekly (Sericea lespedeza: A 30-year learning curve, Thursday 10 April, 2014). The initial field was now 30 years old and it was astonishing to see how poor quality soil was transformed into humus-rich soil, providing wonderful pasturage and hay after all these years. It was almost unbelievable.

John Fair, Pierre Erasmus, Dirk Botha, Brooks Pennington [Photo taken by Willie Nel]

We could never have dreamed that what we saw on the side of a road in the United States would transform thousands of hectares from expensive, low-protein Eragrotis pastures into low-cost, high-protein legumes pastures!

Approximately 30 years after our trip to the USA and the first planting of Sericea Lespedeza, John Fair came to visit me on my farm. He was part of the team that went to the USA and together we wrestled with the question of what suitable legumes would grow on the farms, which could be used for pasture. He wrote an article on what he found 30 years later (see https://www.farmersweekly.co.za/conservation-agriculture/sericea-lespedeza-a-30-year-learning-curve/). In this article, he outlines the lessons that were learnt, including which seed to use, when to plant, and the best way to use it.

Sericea lespedeza has converted very poor soil into humus-rich soil.
Photo: John Fair

Although this story illustrates restoration success in terms of land (soil) health and fodder production, ReStory does not support or encourage the use of invasive plant species. This success story highlights possibilities of natural restoration, but also encourages the discourse around creating similar successes through indigenous plants. When exotic species are used during any restorative action careful long-term management should follow, as is the case in Moolmanshoek. – The Editor

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