Planting for Pollinators: Button Bush

 

This post is part of an ongoing series highlighting some of the best plants for pollinators from coast-to-coast. Drawing from our books 100 Plants to Feed the Bees, Gardening for Butterflies , and our Monarch Nectar Plant Guides.


Button Bush

Cephalanthus occidentalis

A popular cultivar of button bush is ‘Sputnik’ and when you see the flowers you’ll understand the comparison. Buttonbush has one of the most unique flowers of any shrub, and butterflies think so too. Button bush is frequented by skippers, monarchs, and virtually any butterflies that happen to be passing by. The attractiveness to butterflies makes button bush an excellent alternative to the non-native, invasive butterfly bush (Buddleia spp.).

The showy flowers of button bush fade to crimson seed heads that give button bush its common name. (photos: left, Justin Wheeler, right, Illionoiswildflowers.info)

In addition to its attractiveness to butterflies, button bush also serves as a host plant for some of our largest and showiest moths including the titan sphinx (Aellopos titan), the hydrangea sphinx (Darapsa versicolor) and the royal walnut moth (Citheronia regalis). As one of the few shrubs that blooms in midsummer, and one that can tolerate shade, wet conditions, and even occasional flooding – you’d be hard pressed to find a more valuable or versatile native shrub.

The Titan sphinx moth is one of several large and showy moths that host on button bush. Photo: Charlesjsharp / Wikimedia.

As less frequently used common name of honeyball alludes to the shrubs’ use as a source of nectar for beekeepers. Buttonbush once supported a vibrant regional beekeeping industry along the lower Mississippi floodplain. Today buttonbush is prized for its use in habitat restoration efforts where it is typically used in wetland revegetation to stabilize soil.

I suppose it’s worth mentioning the common name we use today derives from the button like seed heads that develop after the plant has finished blooming. These “buttons” persist into winter, turning a deep crimson providing winter interest to your landscape. The shrub also exhibits remarkable fall color, with deep reds and yellows. Given the showy blooms, fall color, red “buttons”, and glossy green leaves – button bush is truly a 4-season shrub.

Buttonbush at Los Angeles County Arboretum, Arcadia, California.

When growing button bush, it’s natural tendency it towards a leggy, gangly habit – however, buttonbush can take heavy pruning so it can be coerced into a more rounded habit or trained into an upright specimen. If a dense, rounded shrub is desired, a landscaper friend suggests planting three buttonbush at a time close together, about a foot apart which will provide a fuller appearance.

Native Range: Buttonbush is widely distributed across the U.S., occurring across most of the east, west to the great plains, and with scattered populations across the southwest and California.

Best for: Restoration, providing nectar for a diversity of pollinators, visual interest, and providing a larval host to some of our showiest moths!

 

Profile written by Justin Wheeler, Web and Communications Specialist


This plant and many others are featured in our book Gardening for Butterflies, available here.

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