Summer Swamp Showoff: Buttonbush

Pollinators find its flowers irresistible

Most of the year, Buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis) keeps a low profile in the swamps and stream- and pond-sides of the eastern half of North America. To the casual observer, it’s just another gangly green bush leaning out over the water — until it blooms somewhere between early June and early August. Then you can’t miss it.

First, clouds of pollinators hover all around it, taking turns dining on what must be very tasty nectar. And its unique blooms — globes about an inch and a half across of tiny white tubular flowers — stun me into mouth-gaping admiration every time I stumble upon a blooming specimen.

These opposite-leaved shrubs are in the same plant family as Pinckneya bracteata, which I told you about previously. They are the only two members of this family native to the southeastern United States. Most of their kin live in tropical and subtropical regions.

Usually, naturally occurring specimens along our creeks and ponds are floppy masses of branches dangling over the water and  looking, well, kind of messy. Where I’ve planted them in my yard, that is certainly their tendency. One is growing by a shallow pond, and I’ve planted a new one inside the deer fence at the bottom of the hill near the creek, in the hopes that it will get enough moisture to keep it happy while still benefitting from the absence of deer munching.

My references tell me that deer only lightly browse these bushes, but, clearly, the authors never met the deer that dine in my yard. My poor pond-side bush is quite lopsided from deer “pruning.” It’s also in fairly deep shade, so it doesn’t produce many flowers. I thought this was normal for the species until I saw one blooming a few weeks ago at the NC Botanical Garden.

When I saw this bush — really the size of a small tree — towering above a flowerbed absolutely covered in white globes of flowery goodness, which, in turn, were covered by myriad fluttering butterflies — I didn’t know what it was. It didn’t occur to me that this gorgeous shrub could be the same species I knew from my backyard.

When I realized what it was, I wanted pictures, but I didn’t have my camera. However, fortune was on my side. My friends, Mike, and his wife, Mary, and a few other folks were with me. I persuaded Mike to take a few pictures with Mary’s camera, and they were kind enough to share them with me to use here. Thanks to both!

Here’s a picture of the whole bush blooming that day at the garden:

Stunning specimen blooming in full sun at the NC Botanical Garden

Even if you’ve only got moist areas in shade, this native shrub is worth growing. You’ll certainly get at least some flowers. Of course, if you’ve got a sunny wet spot, you can get blooms in abundance. Whatever flowers you do get will not only be appreciated by pollinators. The seeds are favorite food for waterfowl and many songbirds. My references tell me the leaves are poisonous to cattle, so if they frequent your landscape, you probably shouldn’t add this shrub to it.

After seeing just how spectacular this shrub in bloom can be, I’m giving serious consideration to trying to limb up some of the canopy trees towering over my Buttonbushes. If I can help them get them a bit more sun and still keep their roots happily wet, maybe I’ll be treated to a blooming Buttonbush bonanza similar to the one I saw at the NC Botanical Garden. Here’s hoping!


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