Cephalanthus occidentalis is a fun and charming plant that has an equally fun and charming common name – buttonbush. This moisture-loving flowering shrub is easy to grow, tolerant of most everything apart from getting dry, and in return for keeping it moist and happy it will furnish you with the kind of flower that makes children squeak and adults smile fondly. With its long, slightly folded, light green leaves it provides interest even before it bursts into bloom, with the unopened green buds forming solid highly textured globes, and then the fun really happens! Each little head is like a ball of tiny tightly packed flowers that resemble a miniature floral explosion held in a moment of time for all to appreciate; exquisitely delicate pistils erupting from each diminutive flower like fragments of star escaping from a collapsing white sun. They are as wonderful as they sound. The dark seed-heads that follow are an excellent food source for many birds, and fall sees orange and yellows brighten the garden before it falls silent till the next spring.
There is something very satisfying and fulfilling about planning your garden; from filling beds and borders with low lying interest, perhaps bulbs and creepers, to tall trees and specimen plants to create height and color. When looking for things to fill that space in the middle, not too big and not too small, there are a great many options from the unremarkable to the truly stunning. The buttonbush is definitely of the latter variety and has the added bonus of being extremely undemanding, as well as attracting butterflies, birds and bees to your garden. Its requirements are very simple; full to partial sunlight and water, lots of it. The buttonbush will thrive in wet conditions, even in standing water where it can be challenging to find and plant highly ornamental shrubs.
The buttonbush is a flowering member of the coffee family, with a native range from Florida to Mexico and north to Nova Scotia and Ontario, and will be found in wet marshy areas, shorelines and the borders of forests. If it is wet and boggy you will find this plant flourishing, even in depths of up to three feet of water; although it will survive in drier conditions the flowering will suffer greatly, so do not be afraid on planting this in the wettest part of your garden in full sunlight. If you are feeling adventurous, it has even been known to establish itself on rotten logs!
Reaching up to a mature height of twelve feet, this is a multi-stemmed bush that is rounded yet loose in nature. If you would prefer a little order to its growth it can be pruned to neaten the shape, and if it becomes downright unruly in its form you can take the entire plant back down to about a foot above the soil and start the process again; it will forgive you for this treatment and the next year it will come back as if nothing had happened. It is unlikely you will feel the need to do this, as it is such a beautiful plant in its natural form, but should you feel the need at least you know that you can.
The leaves are positioned opposite one another and can vary from two to six inches long and one to three inches wide, with the lengthwise edges drawing up a little to form open funnels. With a lovely mid to light green on the upper side of the leaf they are pale and downy beneath, with the topside displaying deep grooves branching out angularly from the center vein. From June to September you will be treated to the small yet highly elaborate one inch round flowers that make the buttonbush so special.
Benefits to Wildlife
These are delicately scented and are very appealing to bees and butterflies among other winged insects and birds, including the much loved hummingbird, making this an ideal plant for the naturalized landscape or wildlife garden. In fact, The Xerces Society ranks buttonbush as being of special value to native bees and no self-respecting butterfly garden would be seen without one of these quirky specimens. When planted alongside duck ponds, it also provides a safe nesting site for water based wildfowl.
Although this could be said of any plant that lives on the very edge of (and into) water, the root system plays an important part of the ecology under the water’s surface; it provides many creatures with hiding and nesting sites, with dragonfly nymphs using the stems to climb out of the water to sit in the sun and dry their new wings.
Pests and Diseases
So you would think that with all the very big positives, the ease of growth, the lack of maintenance and its simple requirements of plenty of sun and water, that there is probably a huge and terrifying list of interesting and peculiar pests and diseases just waiting to strip your lovely new plant of its lushness. Well, there isn’t a single one and we are fairly sure you will not be disappointed to learn that. In fact it is very difficult to find a reason not to adore this fun and funky shrub unless of course you live in a desert in which case it probably holds very little appeal at all.