Sunday, July 13, 2014

Buttons, Butterflies and Bees

Summer blooming shrubs are some of my favorites because, frankly, blooms in the hot and muggy days of summer are a welcome sight. These hot days I have perennials like Rudbeckia, Silphium and mountain mint (Pycnanthemum), but a blooming shrub is extra special. Like many native plants, the blooms of buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis) go beyond being a pretty flower for humans to admire.

Cephalanthus occidentalis

What good is a flower if it doesn’t attract insects? (Get back to me on that.) Insects need a constant source of nectar and pollen from spring to fall. The summer blooming plants are an important part of that food continuum for them.

I don’t have the right conditions for buttonbush in my yard. It wants some sun and will do best adjacent to a pond or a wet area. I’m running out of available sunny places and I used up all my wet spots with other things. My neighbor has a beautiful, large buttonbush right next to their pond (courtesy of the forward-thinking, nature-loving previous neighbor), so I go over there to see who visits the flowers.

Bees have been the most frequent visitors to the blooms. I never tire of watching a bumblebee dive into a big blossom – in this case a 360-degree blossom! You can see some great close up pictures here. I understand that hummingbirds are fond of it as well.

As I watched the bees and a lone silver-spotted skipper work the blooms, a female tiger swallowtail arrived. Her wings were torn but she was hungry. I imagine she has had a hard life and is probably near the end. After she sipped nectar from several flowers, she fluttered up into the cool, green canopy of large tuliptrees (Liriodendron tulipifera) where hopefully she will lay a few more eggs for the next generation.

Female eastern tiger swallowtail

This one is just getting started

In addition to this being a great plant for insects, the unusual flower makes it perfect as a summer focal point plant. You can opine to your visitors that perhaps early settlers used the dried seed heads as buttons, but frankly I think they shatter too easily for that to be possible. Perhaps "honeyballs" is a more apt common name.

Blooms are always a combination of old and new

There's no doubt that it's great for ponds and wet areas, a hit with pollinators and a lovely way to have flowers in the summer. Birds do eat the seeds, especially ducks, I've heard. That makes it even better. Look for one at a native plant sale soon.


  1. "360-degree blossom" -- hadn't thought of it that way! Awesome!

  2. Thanks for sharing your buttonbush photos. I planted a couple this year, but they're too small to flower yet. I've actually never seen buttonbush flowers in person. Now I'm excited to find out what pollinators they'll attract in Virginia. Maybe next summer?

  3. I had a master naturalist friend that successfully grew buttonbush through a drought in San Marcus, TX. They seem to be able to tolerate dryer soils then we think. And you could plant it in a depression in your yard and flood it if it is needed. But this would already get it closer to the water table so, after the first two years, I suspect it would be pretty carefree.