Backyard Ecology Exploring Nature in Your Backyard
Exploring Nature in Your Backyard

Buttonbush: A summer extravaganza for pollinators

Introduction

Buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis) is a deciduous shrub native to the eastern half of North America. It can be found growing naturally along creeks, ponds, lakes, and other fairly wet areas. Buttonbush can also be grown as a native ornamental in mostly sunny areas where the soil is on the moist side of medium to wet. In the summer it produces clusters of white flowers that are highly attractive to a wide variety of pollinators.

Buttonbush flowers
Buttonbush has green leaves and produces balls of tightly clustered tubular flowers during the summer. Photo credit: NC Wetlands, public domain

Biology and Life History

In natural situations, buttonbush grows in areas that are wet for at least a good portion of the year. This can include the banks of creeks, ponds, and lakes, as well as vernal or seasonal pools that are wet during the rainy season, but dry up during the summer. Buttonbush does not mind having its feet wet and can even grow in flooded conditions. I often see it growing in areas where the water is a foot or two deep for pretty much the entire year.

Buttonbush typically grows to between 5 and 10 feet tall. If left to grow naturally, it will often take on a multi-stemmed nature and can have a 5 to 6 foot spread. The leaves are usually light green when young and darker green when older, but can also take on a somewhat coppery color. They tend to break dormancy and come out later in the spring than many other shrubs.

In the summer, typically late June / early July through August or September, buttonbush produces dense balls of white flowers that produce a pleasant, sweet smell. It will flower more in sunnier areas than in shadier areas.

Pollinator and Wildlife Uses

Pollinators absolutely love buttonbush. Hummingbirds and numerous butterflies including painted ladies, skippers, hoary edge butterflies, swallowtails, monarchs and fritillaries will drink nectar from the flowers. Honey bees and lots of different kinds of native bees will also eagerly visit the flowers. After the flowers go to seed, waterfowl and many different types of songbirds will eat the nutlets that it produces.

Viceroy butterfly on buttonbush flowers
Butterflies, hummingbirds, moths, native bees, and honey bees are all highly attractive to the bright white flowers of buttonbush. Photo credit: USDA NRCS, public domain

Buttonbush is also a host plant for the titan sphinx moth, the hydrangea sphinx moth, and the royal walnut moth. Deer will occasionally nibble on young plants and young leaves / twigs, but it is not a preferred deer forage. Many species of songbirds will also nest in the dense foliage of mature buttonbush shrubs.

Incorporating Buttonbush into Your Yard

Buttonbush is potentially a great choice if you have a wetter “problem area” in your yard. They also make great additions for rain gardens. However, you don’t necessarily need a super wet area to incorporate it into your yard. They will grow perfectly fine in medium soil if you water them occasionally, especially during droughts. Planting them near a downspout is another option that takes advantage of the rain coming off your roof, but still keeps them close enough to easily water if needed during the middle of the summer. It can also be trimmed, if needed or desired, to fit your landscaping.

Summary

Buttonbush is an excellent shrub to consider if you want beautiful white flowers that provide an abundance of nectar and pollen for hummingbirds, native bees, honey bees, butterflies, and moths. It prefers moister to wetter soils, but will also grow in medium moisture soils as long as it is watered occasionally during the drier season. It is also an excellent choice for growing around ponds or other wet areas that you might have on your property.


Backyard Ecology: Creating Space for Pollinators and Wildlife
Nature isn’t just “out there.” It’s all around us, including right outside our doors. Hi, my name is Shannon Trimboli, and I am the host of Backyard Ecology. I live in southcentral Kentucky and am a wildlife biologist, educator, author, beekeeper, and owner of a nursery specializing in plants for pollinators and wildlife conservation. I started Backyard Ecology as a way to share my love of exploring nature and learning about different plants and animals. I invite you to join me as we ignite our curiosity and natural wonder, explore our yards and communities, and improve our local pollinator and wildlife habitat. Learn more or subscribe to my email list at www.backyardecology.net.

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