Fifty-nine bacterial isolates from root nodules of the woody legumes Wisteria sinensis, Cercis racemosa and Amorpha fruticosa grown in the central and eastern regions of China were characterized with phenotypic analysis, PCR-based 16S and 23S rRNA gene RFLP, Box PCR and 16S rRNA gene sequencing. Seven main phena were defined in numerical taxonomy, which corresponded to distinct groups within the genera Agrobacterium, Bradyrhizobium, Mesorhizobium and Rhizobium in 16S and 23S rRNA gene PCR-RFLP. The phylogenetic relationships of the 16S rRNA genes supported the grouping results of PCR-RFLP. Most of the isolates from Amorpha fruticosa were classified into two groups closely related to Mesorhizobium amorphae. Seventeen of the 21 isolates from Wisteria sinensis were identified as two groups related to Rhizobium and Agrobacterium. Six out of 10 isolates from Cercis racemosa were identified as a group related to Bradyrhizobium. Our results indicated that each of the investigated legumes nodulated mainly with one or two rhizobial groups, although isolates from different plants intermingled in some small bacterial groups. In addition, correlation between geographic origin and grouping results was found in the isolates from Amorpha fruticosa. These results revealed that the symbiotic bacteria might have been selected by both the legume hosts and the geographic factors.