A shrub that I continue to promote and utilize in the Midwest is our native buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis and cvs., Zones 4–10). Native to a wide range of the eastern and midwestern United States, this shrub is finally receiving the mainstream attention and use that it deserves.
I first saw this plant as a child in the wetlands of upstate New York where my grandparents lived. The spherical white flower heads with a pincushion-like appearance were unforgettable. They were thriving in a wet location that frequently had standing water. That’s exactly what buttonbush (also called button willow, honey bush, and honey balls) prefers, and it is frequently found along wet edges and is included in wetland projects and rain gardens.
All About Growing Native Buttonbush
Buttonbush flowers and foliage
The interesting flowers that I recall from my youth appear in June and really are quite fetching in summer. They emerge white or the lightest of pink and hold their globular shape as they form into hard fruiting structures late in summer. The flowers are also slightly fragrant and attract a wide range of wildlife, including pollinators such as bees and many species of butterflies. The large, glossy foliage is rarely affected by insects or diseases. In fall, the leaves transition to shades of yellow and orange.
Buttonbush cultivars come in big and small packages
This shrub typically grows 8 to 12 feet tall and nearly as wide, although larger specimens are not uncommon. The breeding and selection for more compact forms continues in earnest. There are many great varieties on the market right now.
- The selection First Editions® Fiber Optics™ (Cephalanthus occidentalis ‘Bailoptics’, Zones 4–9) only grows 6 feet tall and wide.
- The selection Sugar Shack® (Cephalanthus occidentalis ‘SMCOSS’, Zones 4–10) is listed at 4 to 5 feet tall and wide.
- Magical® Moonlight (Cephalanthus occidentalis ‘Kolmoon’, Zones 5–9) also has a compact stature at 4 feet tall and 4 to 5 feet wide.
- I’m excited to try the relatively new Crimson Comet™ (‘SMCBM’). It gets a superior fall color in the reddish orange range and grows 6 to 10 feet tall and wide.
Buttonbush growing needs and care
This distant member of the coffee family (Rubiaceae) is best positioned in full sun to partial shade, but it does not exhibit drought tolerance. It is, however, deer resistant and quite tolerant of urban pollution. Buttonbush is a tough, durable plant that offers form, function, wildlife value, and potential in damp locations. It’s also beautiful throughout the growing season.
—Mark Dwyer is the garden manager for the Edgerton Hospital Healing Garden in Edgerton, Wisconsin, and he operates Landscape Prescriptions by MD.
Photos: Mark Dwyer