Buttonbush is a flowering plant in the Cephalanthus genus of shrubs. About six species in this genus are commonly referred to as buttonbush. Native to parts of North America, this plant commonly grows as a deciduous shrub or small tree.
In the mid-1700s, buttonbush was introduced commercially for beekeepers. The shrub, or small tree, was grown to serve as a pollen and nectar resource for bees. This is why it is also called honey-bells.
|Scientific name||Cephalanthus occidentalis|
|Common names||Buttonbush, button-willow, honey-bells|
|Height||6 to 12 feet (3.66 m)|
|Width||6 feet (1.83 m)|
|USDA Plant Hardiness Zone||USDA zones 5 to 9|
|Native to||North America|
|Plant specific features||Attracts birds and butterflies and has fragrant, unusual shaped flowers.|
How to Plant and Grow a Buttonbush
Unlike many shrubs, the common buttonbush likes wet or medium wet soil. Don’t consider planting Cephalanthus occidentalis if you have dry soil as it will not survive.
Where to Plant
If you have a patch of boggy land, a pond, or a river bank, the ground may not dry out until mid-summer. This is a perfect site for a buttonbush (and not much else!). The button brush will thrive anywhere that is constantly wet.
Even if the water is 3 feet (0.91 m) deep, the buttonbush will tolerate having its roots consistently sitting in water.
When to Plant
If you buy a container buttonbush from a nursery or online, then you can plant it in the Spring for the best results. Seeds can be sown at the end of the Summer or in the fall.
Buttonbush Care and Maintenance
The best soil for the buttonbush is one that is enriched with plenty of organic matter. In the wild, it will grow in swamps, forests, and shrublands.
The soil must be able to retain moisture, as the buttonbush needs wet soil in order to survive. This is a shrub that is able to survive even if its roots are in a meter of water.
The buttonbush is a shrub that requires plenty of water. It needs to grow in moist soil and its roots need to be able to access plenty of water from below ground level.
It will not tolerate drought conditions, so be prepared to provide plenty of water in dry spells. If you find that the plant has dried out, you can attempt to salvage it by cutting the branches back hard.
It isn’t necessary to fertilize the buttonbush, but a slow-release, general purpose fertilizer can increase flower and seed production. Sun and water are more important for the buttonbush than fertilizer!
It’s essential that the buttonbush gets as much sunlight as possible. This will result in optimum flower and seed production. So try to plant the shrub somewhere that gets a lot of sun at all times of the year.
Pruning and Repotting
You probably will only want to prune your buttonbush if it becomes too overgrown. However, there is a greater need to prune overhanging trees and shrubs which cast shade onto the buttonbush. If the buttonbush isn’t able to get the full rays of the sun, flowering will be greatly lessened.
If you decide to grow buttonbush from seed, you can collect seeds in the fall. You can plant them straight away either in pots, seed trays, or even directly into the soil.
If planted outside, you should provide them with some shelter from the cold and make sure that neighboring plants don’t deprive your seedlings of moisture and nutrients. After about a year, the seedlings will be ready to plant in their final positions.
Buttonbush also spreads naturally by its root suckering system. New shrubs develop from these underground systems. If you can find a sucker at the base of the stem, you may be able to dig down to remove the root and grow a new plant in this way.
Alternatively, propagate buttonbush from softwood cuttings. The cuttings should be around 4 inches (10.16 cm) long and should contain a leaf node and some leaves.
Remove all but the top two leaves, and dip the base of the stem into hormone rooting powder. Make sure the potting compost is well moistened before inserting the cutting.
Keep the cuttings out of direct sunlight until they are established. The potting compost needs to be kept moist at all times.
Make sure that all grasses and shrubs that grow nearby are not too close, to avoid suffocating the new seedlings.
Pests and diseases
There is very little problem with pests and diseases. You can however keep an eye on the shrub, as sometimes caterpillars may eat the leaves.
They won’t do any serious damage to established buttonbush plants, but newly planted seedlings may suffer a setback if too much foliage is lost to larvae. Most animals will not eat this plant as it is very bitter. It is deer resistant too.
Temperature and Humidity
A buttonbush shrub is not a tender plant. It will grow in regions where temperatures fall as low as -20 °C briefly and occasionally.
However, as with all container-grown plants, if you grow a buttonbush in a pot, the roots will be less protected than they are when planted in the ground.
In ideal growing conditions, the buttonbush shrub will do best when grown between 16 °C and 24 °C.
Other Uses for Buttonbush
This plant is considered toxic to humans. Its leaves and bark contain a toxic compound and, if ingested, can cause vomiting and gastrointestinal issues. Because of its very bitter taste, fortunately, most animals ignore it.
Sometimes cuttings of buttonbush are used to make windbreaks. Large buttonbush plants can protect smaller plants growing under their branches. The plant is also used in wetland development and to control erosion of river banks.
Types of Cephalanthus occidentalis (Buttonbush) You Can Grow
With its attractive spiky pincushion-shaped flower head in summer, this is a great choice of plant for wet places. Although it is deciduous, there is Autumn interest too with yellow foliage and ball-shaped, brown fruit.
There are a number of cultivars available which offer a smaller habit, a more dome-shaped appearance, and red fruit in the fall instead of brown.
C. occidentalis “Bieberich” is commonly known as the Sputnik buttonbush and is a very rounded plant. It will grow to about 8 feet (2.44 m) high.
C. occidentalis “SMCOSS” or Sugar Shack buttonbush is a smaller plant. It will stay at around 4 feet (1.22 m), even when mature. This buttonbush has red fruit. Due to its smaller size, it makes a good choice for container planting.
C. occidentalis Fiber Optics is a hardy cultivar, reportedly hardy to USDA zone 4. It stays small, though larger than Sugar Shack, and has large, very attractive flower heads.
If you like informal or cottage gardens and have a piece of wetland for planting, then a buttonbush is a good choice. You will attract wildlife to your garden, and enjoy its unusual and plentiful flowers.
*image by sweemingyoung/depositphotos