I was first introduced to buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis) when I was in college. It quickly became one of my favorite wetland shrubs because I thought the flowers were interesting and it is an important plant for wildlife. As my interest in pollinators has grown, I’ve gained a new reason to love buttonbush. It is a pollinator magnet.
At least nine different species of butterflies found in Kentucky will use buttonbush flowers. Honey bees and many native bees, including bumble bees, are also attracted to buttonbush flowers. Although I’ve never seen them use it, ruby-throated hummingbirds are reported to occasionally visit buttonbush flowers.
Buttonbush is a native shrub that grows in moist to wet areas and is typically between 6 and 12 feet tall. It is commonly found growing along the banks of ponds and lakes or in other low wet areas such as swamps and drainage ditches. Buttonbush can stand to have its feet wet and flooding isn’t a problem for it.
Buttonbush flowers are white and form tight, ball-shaped clusters. The flowers have long styles that stick out from the ball and make it look like a pin cushion. They are very unique looking. In Kentucky, buttonbush blooms from June to August. After the flowers have bloomed, the seed heads turn red and then a rich brown as they ripen. Each seed contains two nutlets. The fruit stays on the tree into the winter. Waterfowl, especially wood ducks, and many songbirds will devour the nutlets.
Buttonbush can be planted as a native ornamental shrub. It requires consistently moist to wet soil and prefers full sun, but will also grow in part shade. Buttonbush isn’t common in the landscape industry and finding it can be challenging. We are planning to grow it for our nursery next year, but that only helps those within driving distance of us. However, if you have a low, wet problem area in your yard, then buttonbush might be worth looking into despite the challenge of finding it for sale.