Buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis)

Buttonbush is a plant I came to appreciate a bit late relative to other native wildflowers. My excitement for them accelerated after I learned more about their importance for our native pollinators. I recommend the excellent book from Doug Tallamy- Bringing Nature Home.  In it, I learned the importance of preserving the host plants for butterflies and other pollinators. Cephalanthus occidentalis is one of our most important plants for hosting the larvae of many different butterflies. On top of that, it is one of our very best native plants for wildlife according to the USDA Plant Fact Sheet. The USDA NRCS Plant Materials Program research found that Buttonbush seed provides food for at least 8 species of waterfowl and the twigs are food for 3 mammalian species. The interesting pincushion-like flowers provide nectar to many different species of bees, butterflies, wasps, moths, beetles, hummingbirds and more. Fortunately, Buttonbush grows profusely on Ozarkedge. I’ve fallen in love with Buttonbush and I hope you will too! Read on…

Latin Name/Common Name- The latin name “Cephal” means head and “anthos” means flower or anthers. So it basically means a flower head of anthers. This certainly fits with the pincushion appearance of the flower.  The word “occidentalis” means western.

The most used common names are Buttonbush, Common buttonbush, Button-willow and Honey-bells.

Bloom Color-  Buttonbush flower heads have a multitude of tiny bright white flowers surrounded by white spikes each topped with a matte gold head.

Soft white flower balls with pincushion heads
Many flowers and buds simultaneously on a mature bush

Description- Cephalanthus occidentalis is a wetland, deciduous shrub that can grow to 8-12 feet. It can create thick stands at the edges of lakes, ponds, streams or swampy areas. Buttonbush leaves are glossy green and are usually found in opposite pairs but sometimes whorls of three are present. The leaves are large (about 3-6 inches) and lanceolate in shape.

Mature multi-branched bush at pond edge
Multicolored fall foliage continues the show after summer flowers have faded
Glossy, lanceolate leaves occur in opposite pairs or whorls of three
An early (green) and late stage (white) flower bud
Mature flower heads are about 1-1.5 inches across
Flowers have a sweet fragrance
Upon close inspection, one can see that each flower head actually contains hundreds of tiny, white flowers
Seed heads turn a beautiful mixture of red, yellow and green after the flower has faded
By late September seed heads have transitioned to brilliant red
Brown seed heads are lovely clinging to the plant through the winter

Bloom Time- On Ozarkedge Button bush stays in bloom through the months of June to September. This long bloom period enhances its importance as a pollinator and wildlife plant.

Habitat- Cephalanthus occidentalis loves wet feet. In it’s native habitat, you will find it at the edges of lakes, ponds, streams or other low places where water accumulates. It can withstand living in up to 2 feet of water. While it tolerates both sun and shade, it will bloom much more profusely in sun. It can be used as a naturalized hedge in wet areas of your garden or a specimen plant. As a specimen in sun, it can be limbed up as it matures and will look stunning in full bloom when it is covered by butterflies, bees and other happy insects. The North Carolina Botanical garden has such a specimen.

Buttonbush surrounded by the murky water of small pond
Buttonbush creates a beautiful hedge at the lake edge
The lakeshore is a welcome habitat for a colony of Buttonbush

What’s Growing Nearby?   Water’s edge and marshy areas are home to some interesting and beautiful native wildflowers. These can frequently be found growing adjacent to Buttonbush.

Above left to right- Ludwigia alternifolia (Seed box), Dodder cuscuta (Common dodder) and Sagittaria latifolia (Duck potato).

Above left to right- Saururus cernuus (Lizard’s tail), Pluchea camphorata (Camphor pluchea) and Lythrum alatum (Winged loosestrife)

Above left to right- Hibiscus lasiocarpus (Rose mallow), Diodia virginiana (Virginia buttonweed) and Ampelopsis arborea (Peppervine)

Campsis radicans intermingled with Cephanthus occidentalis

Endangered List- The native range of Cephalanthus occidentalis is across the entire eastern and southern United States. The western range extends to California. It is not found in most of the western and northwestern states.

The USDA site doesn’t list the conservation status of this important pollinator plant, but the NatureServe site does. As usual, the data for many (in this case, most) sites is Not Ranked. In the ranked states, it is Imperiled in Nebraska, Apparently Secure in Minnesota and Iowa and Secure in New York, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Virginia, North Carolina and Kentucky. Obviously, this doesn’t really tell us the conservation status with so much missing data. Look at the map from NatureServe below:

*NatureServe. 2015. NatureServe Explorer: An online encyclopedia of life [web application]. Version 7.1. NatureServe, Arlington, Virginia. Available http://explorer.natureserve.org. (Accessed: January 1, 2017 ).

Interesting Tidbits-  Find a Buttonbush in bloom and go sit for a while to observe the activity around it. Take your camera or phone to capture some pictures. You’ll see all kinds of insects, spiders, bees, butterflies, moths, wasps and perhaps even a hummingbird buzzing around the big flower heads. You’ll understand very quickly why this plant is so important to our environment.

Look through the leaves. You may see bird nests hidden inside. Many birds use thickets of Buttonbush for safe nesting sites. For the past two fall seasons, I’ve observed beautiful wood ducks on our pond. I’ve read that they like to nest in the branches of Buttonbush, but I haven’t had the chance to observe this yet. Maybe next year.

You can start Buttonbush from seed or cuttings in the spring. If you know someone with a plant, an easy way to get one started is to push some branches down and cover them with damp soil and a rock to keep them in place. They will root and can be cut to plant into your garden within the season. If growth is too vigorous, you can cut Buttonbush back in the fall. It will rejuvenate quickly. In fact, it is one of the first plants to rejuvenate following a fire.

Buttonbush is highly recommended in wetland restorations and for erosion control due to its thick growth habit.

Lastly, please plant Buttonbush in place of the non-native and invasive Butterflybush (Buddleja davidii) from Asia. While butterflies will be seen getting nectar from Butterfly bush, it is not a host plant for their larvae. Butterflies require host plants in order to maintain their dwindling populations. If you want to learn more about this, please check out this wonderful article from The Natural WebThe author was asked by the editor of Butterfly Gardener to write the ‘con’ side in a debate about whether to plant Butterflybush. I learned a lot about why the host plants are required to support the full life cycle of Butterflies. The article includes examples of better alternatives to Butterflybush. I’m happy to see many of the native wildflowers, shrubs, trees and vines that I’ve supported on Ozarkedge are on the list!

Bumble bee enjoying sweet nectar of Buttonbush flower