Buttonbush: 2022 Virginia Wildflower of the Year
Question: What kind of flowering shrub would you recommend for a sunny, low lying wet area bordering my yard?
A Beautiful Plant for Wet Areas
One shrub that comes to mind is Buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis), also known as button ball, button willow, honey-bells and riverbush. Easy to grow, this deciduous shrub or small tree is a good choice for a rain garden, swale, or along a stream, as it requires moist to wet conditions to thrive. It grows 6 to 12 feet high, and 12 to 18 feet wide with an irregular form. It has glossy green oval leaves up to 4 inches long and 2 inches wide arranged with an opposite or whorled (radiating from a single point) leaf arrangement and is one of the last native shrubs to leaf out in the spring. It has delicate, striking 1-inch fragrant white pin cushion-type flowers that bloom from June through August. It produces hard 1-inch ball-shaped fruits in the fall with a reddish fall color that turns to brown in winter. Leaves turn yellow in the fall and the fruits provide winter interest. It is the only wetland shrub that has whorled leaves and spherical-shaped flowers. View this video to learn to identify this plant.
It has no serious pest or disease problems, but is sensitive to drought and does not do well in dry soil or dense shade. Its leaves are generally toxic to animals (except for deer) and buttonbush can cause convulsions, vomiting or paralysis in humans, if ingested.
Buttonbush: 2022 Virginia Wildflower of the Year
Although some might question whether a flowering shrub is a wildflower, it does satisfy the commonly-held definition, as stated by Clemson Cooperative Extension: “…a flowering plant that grows in a natural uncultivated state or survives with little care.”
It is easy to see why this bush has earned accolades as the “2022 Wildflower of the Year” by the Virginia Native Plant Society. To be selected, the wildflower plant must be native to Virginia and not an invasive plant or weed, have showy, colorful or unique flowers or other attributes and ideally, reflect Virginia Native Plant Society’s emphasis on habitat. The button bush satisfies all these conditions.
Buttonbush is native to almost all of Virginia, as shown in the Digital Atlas of Virginia Flora. It provides habitat for a variety of insects and other wildlife. Known as a magnet for pollinators, its nectar attracts a wide variety of butterflies, moths, bees, flies and 24 species of birds, including hummingbirds and many songbirds. Mallards, wood ducks and teal eat its seeds. Its foliage is eaten by white-tailed deer and wood ducks and other wildlife shelter and build their nests under these shrubs.
Plant Care and Maintenance
Buttonbush can be planted in USDA plant hardiness zones 5-10, and prefers full sun to partial shade in moderate to wet sandy or loamy neutral or acidic soil. It has a low tolerance for salt and grows naturally in freshwater wetlands. Plant it in a wet spot or provide moderate irrigation to keep the soil moist. Aside from watering if soil dries out, little maintenance is required. If reshaping is needed, prune it in late winter or early spring before new growth emerges. It is often used to restore or develop wetlands and can be used effectively for erosion control near streams or ponds.
Because of the benefits this native plant provides to local ecosystems, gardeners should not dig up buttonbush growing in the wild. Instead, purchase only nursery propagated, not wild-collected plants, or responsibly collected seeds. For a list of Virginia retail sources, visit the Virginia Native Plant Society website.
It often grows among native plant communities of American beech, red maple, black oak, pin oak, black gum, holly, viburnum, Indian grass, big bluestem and sedges. If establishing a whole native plant community, consider adding some of these plants to your selection to accompany the buttonbush!
More on Wildflowers and Other Native Plants
Just one native wildflower plant can inspire interest in planting many more! Check out this article for lists of native shrubs for wet, shady areas or sunny wet areas. Explore other wildflower choices for your home landscape or consider starting a native wildflower meadow. “Dig” into the wider world of Virginia native plants to add beauty to your gardens while supporting pollinators and habitat for wildlife. The Piedmont Native Plants guide will provide many good options to choose from.
“Buttonbush”, University of Florida, Institute of Food & Agricultural Sciences, Gardening Solutions, 2021.
“Buttonbush”, Smith, Barbara H, Horticulture Extension Agent, Home & Garden Center, Clemson University, Clemson Cooperative Extension, 1 Jul 2019.
“Buttonbush”, Janoski, Julie, Plant Clinic Manager & Yiesla, Sharon, Plant Knowledge Specialist, The Morton Arboretum.
“Common Buttonbush” Wennerberg, Sarah, US Department of Agriculture, Natural Resources Conservation Service, 25 Jun 2004.
“Digital Atlas of the Virginia Flora”, Virginia Botanical Associates, 2022.
“Gardening With Natives in Wet Areas”, Martin, Susan, The Garden Shed, Piedmont Master Gardeners, Vol.7, No. 5, May 2021.
“Planting for Pollinators: Establishing A Wildflower Meadow from Seed” University of New Hampshire, UNH Extension.
“Starting a Native Wildflower Meadow”, Ask A Master Gardener, Piedmont Master Gardeners, 10 Jun 2021.
“Virginia’s Native Shrubs – Backbone of Our Landscape”, Plant Virginia Natives.
“Wildflowers”, Clemson University, Clemson Cooperative Extension, Home & Garden Center, Factsheet HGIC 1157, 23 Jul 2017.
“Wildflower of the Year 2022 Buttonbush”, Hayden, W. John, VNPS Botany Chair, Virginia Native Plant Society, 1 January 2022.