Sometimes, selecting a new plant for the garden isn’t only about looks. The buttonbush might not win any prizes for the most ornamental shrub available, but it is certainly a very useful species.
These plants are ideal for waterlogged areas where other plants can’t survive, and their power to attract wildlife makes them a wonderful, eco-friendly choice.
Read on to learn more about growing and caring for this interesting native wetland plant.
What Is A Buttonbush?
The buttonbush, Cephalanthus occidentalis, is a deciduous native shrub that can be found in wet environments across most of North America. These plants of the Rubiaceae family are also commonly known as the button-willow, honey-bells, honey balls, or globe flowers.
Button bush is a medium to large, rounded deciduous shrub with quite an open growth form. These plants develop multiple stems and spread by suckering.
The species can grow to about 20 feet (6 m) tall and wide in warm locations but most specimens are smaller, reaching about 6 to 12 feet (1.8 to 3.6 m). There is also a dwarf cultivar available that reaches just 4 feet (1.2 m) or so.
The species is native to North America where it grows in marshy and boggy areas. They can also be found in wet conditions, growing along streams, around lakes, and in wetlands. This widespread plant occurs from Canada to northern Mexico and Cuba, and from Florida all the way across to California.
The plant has glossy, dark green leaves that become lighter in the fall, although the buttonbush is not known for its great fall color. The leaves are oppositely arranged or whorled in 3 and measure 4 to 6 inches (10 to 15 cm) in length.
The leaves are elliptical in shape, with a pointed tip, and tend to sprout quite late in the spring season. The button-willow has rough, grayish bark when mature, with new growth that is smooth and green, becoming reddish.
Common Buttonbush Flowers
The common buttonbush produces pleasantly fragrant flowers in early spring and summer. The flowers occur in round inflorescences up to about the size of a ping-pong ball.
The very characteristic inflorescences are spherical in shape and usually occur at the ends of branches, although they also sometimes grow along their length.
Each flowerhead is composed of a great many individual flowers, and each has a protruding style, making each flowerhead look almost sea urchin-like.
These flowerheads mature into round seed pods in the fall after flowering. The inflorescence matures into a reddish rounded fruit which is a cluster of nutlets. These persist on the plant through the winter where they add some interest to the plant.
How To Grow A Buttonbush
Buttonbush is an easy plant to propagate. The seeds germinate quickly and easily without any treatment (1). This plant can also be grown from semi-ripe cuttings taken in summer, or hardwood cuttings taken in the winter.
Buttonbush grows well in a variety of soil types, provided they are moist to wet. Dryer soils may only be tolerated during dormancy.
This is one of those rare plants that actually likes wet feet, which is evident in some individuals growing out of shallow water sources. As can be expected for such a water-loving species, they are not drought tolerant.
This plant will grow and flower best in full sun, although partial shade is also suitable. They are hardy in a wide range of climates and can be grown in USDA Hardiness zones 5 through 11.
Buttonbush Care and Maintenance
Buttonbush is a fast-growing shrub that can reach its full adult size in just 4 or 5 years. Unfortunately, they are fairly short-lived plants, however.
They can be trained as small trees with multiple trunks by cutting off low-growing stems or simply pruned for neatness. These plants are generally best grown as more of an informal plant for naturalizing in problem areas and attracting and supporting native wildlife, however.
Fertilizing will not be necessary for plants grown in a fairly fertile substrate, but can be beneficial for older specimens. Apply a balanced slow-release fertilizer around the root zone in spring for best results.
These plants are generally hardy to pests and diseases. Bear in mind though that the glossy green leaves are fed on by the larval stages of moths and butterflies. This does cause some damage to the leaves, but it is best to let nature take its course and enjoy all the pollinators that visit this shrub.
Buttonbush shrub is not much of a specimen and is best planted in rain and wildlife gardens where it can be left to naturalize. These plants are also valuable for planting in disturbed wetland areas where they can establish and halt soil erosion.
Buttonbush has been used medicinally as a tea to induce vomiting (2). The plant is toxic, however, and this practice is not advised.
Buttonbush is very important for bees, bumblebees, and other pollinators. This plant is an important larval food host for many moths and butterflies.
These insects, in turn, attract insect-eating bird species. Birds also feed on the seeds and will nest within this shrub. Deer do browse on the foliage of this plant.
If you have a wet and boggy area on your property that you would like to vegetate, or have moist or wet soil and wish to attract native wildlife, buttonbush is one of those great native plants for you. It is fast-growing, undemanding, and is hardy across a wide range of temperatures.
This plant is not particularly ornamental but does produce beautiful and interesting flowers to sweeten the deal.
For more bushes to grow, check our list of bushes.
(1) Bonner, F. T. The Woody Plant Seed Manual. USDA
(2) Gilman, E. F. Cephalanthus occidentalis, Buttonbush
*image by meunierd/depositphotos