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Nature Notes: Beautiful Buttonbush

Ed Robinson
May 1, 2018
Buttonbush with Viceroy butterfly (Leslie R Ramey photo)

Many of you have an interest in attracting a variety of wildlife to your yards, and you also want to add color and texture to your landscaping in an environmentally sound manner. People are increasingly aware that using exotic imported plants can cause problems for our local floral and fauna, so it is far better to use native plant species whenever possible. There is a great deal of scientific evidence to tell us that our local wildlife will flourish if we wisely maintain and develop the land around us, and we can add beauty to our community without causing ecological imbalances. Perhaps you should consider planting “The Shrub That Has It All”, according to Horticultural Magazine.

For a number of years, we have encouraged a diverse range of species at the old farm we own in New York State. At last count, we have planted over 3,000 plants of 81 different species. Our goal is primarily to create or augment desirable habitat for a range of local wildlife, but many of the plants have also contributed to making the place more pleasing to the eye. One of my long time consultants in this project works for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS). In April and May each year, Eric often provides me with some bare root stock with suggestions on where and how to plant them.

About five years ago, Eric arrived with some buttonbush and suggested planting it on the edges of some of our ponds and potholes. Eric knew that we were trying to attract more pollinators to our land, while encouraging plants that would stabilize pond banks and add beauty. I had no experience with buttonbush but was happy to give it a go based upon past successes with Eric’s offerings. While some of our plant experiments fail to work out for one reason or another, the buttonbush is starting to pay dividends.

Sometimes called button-willow or honey-bells, Cephalanthus occidentalis is a deciduous bush that can grow as tall as 10 or 20 feet tall. Part of the coffee family (Rubiaceae), the plant is native to much of eastern and southern North America. The leaves are long, up to seven inches in length and four inches in width, with a veined, glossy surface and a pointed tip. The plant will tolerate a wide variety of soils and growing conditions, but is most often found in damp or wetland environments from the Everglades to moist forest understory.

Buttonbush provides lovely round, fragrant flowers in late spring through mid-summer, ranging from white to pale pink. The flowers look like pincushions due to the long, round-headed pistils growing in all directions, and blooms may last for weeks. The nectar contained in the flowers draws a range of pollinators including butterflies, bees, hummingbirds and a wide range of insects. Some of those insects fall into our cabin’s pond, adding to the diet of the brook trout. While the leaves emerge as bright green, they gradually darken and may host butterfly or moth larvae, then change to red in autumn. The fruit of the plant is a button-like cluster of light brown colored nutlets that may remain on the plant for months. More than 20 species of waterfowl and 25 species of other birds are known to feed upon buttonbush seeds.

Eric told me that the root system will tolerate fluctuating water levels up to four feet deep, allowing the plant to exist in flood plains or swamps with seasonal variations in water availability. That helps explain why FWS would encourage people to use the plant around water features. Yet the plant has also been documented growing in more arid conditions such as steep hillsides and limestone bluffs. As the plant matures, it sends up new shoots and spreads to several feet in width, adding shape to open spaces in the landscape. Its versatility and beauty led Nebraska’s Great Plants program to name buttonbush the 2015 Shrub of the Year.

After a couple years of growth, I learned that deer will happily browse on buttonbush during the colder months (the plant is known to be toxic to livestock, however). Once I put deer fencing around my plants, they began to flourish as their root systems developed. Last year I enjoyed a large number of flowers on the plants and they lured in a wide range of hungry pollinators. I’ve read that waterfowl such as mallards and wood ducks will use the overhanging foliage of buttonbush for nesting habitat. Certainly fish will benefit from the cooling shade and cover provided by overhanging branches. In the Who Would Have Guessed category, Wikipedia states there is even a town in California called Buttonwillow, named after an ancient buttonbush plant that is listed as the California Historical Landmark #492. That plant, or a former one, served as a marker on an ancient Yokut Indian trail through the San Joaquin Valley. It seems to me that any plant that has garnered this kind of praise from so many folks is probably worth considering when you feel the need to add some native diversity to your own landscape.

If you like Ed Robinson’s writing, check out his two Nature Notes books! Click here for more information.