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Cephalanthus occidentalis – Common Buttonbush

Cephalanthus occidentalis, common buttonbush, is wild and wonderful.

Buttonbush has unique one-inch diameter white spherical flowers that give the appearance of a pin cushion. Cephalanthus occidentalis is important to wildlife and native to the Eastern U.S. and California.

Another common name for Cephalanthus is honey-bells. The flowers are sweetly fragrant. Bees use it for honey and hummingbirds love it. Deer eat the foliage.

Cephalanthus occidentalis, common buttonbush, is a native shrub distributed across eastern North America and California.

Common buttonbush is a relatively loose-growing plant that grows in whatever direction suits it. You can cut Cephalanthus almost to the ground in late winter/early spring and it will regenerate just fine. Also, it blooms on new wood so even if you cut it back sharply, you will still get flowers the same year.

Common buttonbush has a reputation for leafing out late in spring. It likes warm weather.

Buttonbush is extremely valuable to wildlife. More than 50 species of birds, including waterfowl, use it for nesting and cover. Eight species of waterfowl eat the berries. Honey bees love it. In fact, another name for it is honeyball and it once supported beekeeping in the lower Mississippi floodplain. The University of Georgia includes common buttonbush in its list of plants for year-round bee forage.

Deer browse the foliage and wood ducks use Cephalanthus for cover. A number of moth species eat the leaves during their larval stage and butterflies visit the flowers for the nectar.

Naturalists recognized the value of buttonbush 200 years ago.

In the early 1800’s, naturalist Titian Ramsay Peale illustrated the hawkmoth caterpillar, Agrius cingulatus, feeding on buttonbush. Peale’s work was finally published by the American Museum of Natural History in 2015 under the title The Butterflies of North America: Titian Peale’s Lost Manuscript. The New York Times gave the book a glowing review.

Henry David Thoreau wrote of buttonbush in A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers that Mikania scandens contrasted “agreeably with the grey bark of button bush”.

My favorite quote by Thoreau about buttonbush, because it gives insight into the water-loving nature of Cephalanthus, is “…it is the button bush that grows in the now low water-it should rather be called the button bush pond.” (A Year in Thoreau’s Journal: 1851).

Hummingbirds visit common buttonbush regularly.

It is easy to grow and loves moist conditions. A lot of people grow common buttonbush next to ponds or in bogs. It would be right at home interplanted with irises. You can grow it in full sun or partial shade and it is widely adaptable to varying soil qualities. Be aware that flowering may be lessened if you plant common buttonbush in shady locations.

If you bother to fertilize it, use a slow-release fertilizer. This will increase flower and seed production.

It typically grows as a multi-stemmed shrub 6′-12 feet tall. It is deciduous and hardy zones 5-10. While the flowers are undoubtedly the most striking feature, the glossy green leaves are attractive throughout the growing season and are attractive in fall. The leaves are opposite and ovate.

It is not considered drought tolerant but only needs watering in extremely dry conditions. Still, keep it well watered for a year or two until established. Buttonbush is easy to grow but don’t plant it where the soil is consistently dry.

Cephalanthus occidentalis is used in wetland restoration to stabilize soil.

It can be planted along water edges to help prevent erosion. Common buttonbush is an indicator of an area’s wetland status. It can tolerate prolonged flooding and even grow in water up to three feet deep. Fall color is good and berries persist into winter.

There is some disagreement as to whether the species native to California, Cephalanthus occidentalis var. californicus, is distinct from the species found in the Eastern United States.

There is a named cultivar, ‘Keystone’ buttonbush, that was released in 1996 by the USDA Natural Resources Conservations Service and the Pennsylvania Game Commision. It was selected from a Northeast native plant collection due to increased vigor and form.

More information:
Winter hardiness zones: Zones 5-10

Native Distribution:

Genus/speciesCephalanthus occidentalis
Common name(s)buttonbush, common buttonbush, honey-bells, button willow, honeyball
Of noteCan grow in areas with standing water – bees, ducks, deer, hummingbirds all utilize it for food or cover – native shrub
Fall coloryes
Water requirementsaverage, moist soil conditions
Soil qualityrich, average
Suggested use(s)bog gardens, mixed borders/perennial beds, native collections, naturalized, understory, woodlands
Hardiness zone(s)5a, 5b, 6a, 6b, 7a, 7b, 8a, 8b, 9a, 9b
Deciduous or evergreendeciduous
Flower colorwhite
Bloom periodsummer
Exposurefull sun, afternoon shade

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