The otherworldly buttonbush flower is very fragrant.

Back in the day when I was publishing a nursery catalog and a gardening newsletter, I was always on the prowl for the perfect photo.

I was also working as a Horticulture Instructor.  My office at the community college was across the hall from the Photography Instructor, Cecil Adkins.  Cecil slipped me a key to the darkroom and spent hours critiquing my work and helping me to hone my skills.

One day as I was lamenting that I was unable to get a stellar butterfly shot, Cecil advised me to “Find a buttonbush in bloom.”

I did and as Cecil had predicted, butterflies were drawn to the flowers and were quite enamored of the nectar.   They were so mesmerized that I was able to ease in close and take the shot of my dreams.

Before that, I had pretty much taken buttonbush or button willow (Cephalanthus occidentalis) for granted.  It was, after all, one of those plants that anyone can grow.  It was a pioneer that could colonize disturbed areas and fill the void.

Why would I admire or want to grow a plant that was so easy?  Like Groucho Marx, “I refused to join a club that would have me as a member.

After I took the perfect Butterfly photo, I began to appreciate Buttonbush a little more.  After all it is a fairly attractive shrub.  It is large with coarse textured foliage.  It is often found in sunny moist locations but will adapt to well drained soil.

It is sometimes called honeyball or honey bells because its fragrant globular flower heads smell like honey.  The flowers are attractive to all sorts of native polllinators – not just butterflies.  They also appeal to hummingbirds.

After flowering, the seed are a food source for ducks and other water birds.

Plants mature into thickets that provide nesting sites for many songbirds and serve as a host for sphinx moth caterpillars.

Buttonbush grows rapidly and is widely appreciated for its ability to prevent erosion.  Young plants are spaced about two feet apart when used for this purpose.

Unrooted hardwood cuttings can also be pushed into the soil in winter.  The cuttings root in place and start to control erosion and create habitat as soon as they begin to grow the next season.   I may try this tactic next winter when I begin the new phase of privet eradication along the creek.

The national champion buttonbush is over 20 feet tall and is located in Buttonwillow, California.   Follow the link to check it out.  It is quite impressive.

I’m not sure if the town was named Buttonwillow because of the champion tree or if it is mere coincidence that the national champion Buttonwillow grows in Buttonwillow?????

One thing is certain.  I would love to see this behemoth in bloom.  There’s no telling how many butterflies and hummingbirds would be in attendance.


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6 Responses to“Buttonbush”

  1. yardflow says:

    Gail, I’ve seen it growing in well drained soil but not extremely dry. The picture I used in the post is from one that is growing in well drained soil in a garden setting beside a road with reflected heat. It probably gets some irrigation during extreme drought. It looks very happy.

  2. yardflow says:

    That sounds like a good plan, Debbie. I’m going to try my cuttings in December or as soon as the leaves drop.

  3. Debra King says:

    Well I cant grow it! I started mine from seed (Joe Mcgee I think) and it is slowly but surely dying. It was beautiful one year. Just a stick with one bloom this year. I’m gonna get some hardwood this winter like you said and stick them around in different spots. Thanks!

  4. Gail says:

    I think this is a wonderful shrub and if it would tolerate dry soil I would let it colonize. gail

  5. yardflow says:

    I have one that is indigenous on my property, Deb. I figure I’ll take hardwood cuttings off it this winter and replace the privet I remove along my creek bank. I didn’t know about the hummers until I did a little research to write this. I love that picture of the national champ! It is a fine looking plant and does not appear to be growing in a wet area either.

  6. debsgarden says:

    This is an interesting post! I can see button bush growing in a wilder part of my garden. I didn’t know that it was such a hummingbird and butterfly magnet. That makes it desirable for me!

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