7/21 The Buttonbush


For as long as I can remember, the unknown leggy bush sat in the swamp near the trail, languishing in the shade of a giant ash tree. Though I didn’t recognize it, I never bothered to figure out what it was since it had few leaves and no flowers. In the sunnier parts of the swamp, Lizard’s tail bloomed so profusely it was easy to ignore the bush. But then things changed…

Buttonbush in its swamp with dangling Tiger swallowtail

The great Ash was attacked by the Emerald ash borer, and as it declined the unknown bush revived. It began to receive at least the minimal amount of sunlight it needed to be happy. And then in June it bloomed, likely for the first time in decades – revealing itself as a Buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis). Being the only flowering Buttonbush in the entire forest (so far as I know) the fragrant globular blooms became an instant butterfly magnet. The day my fellow forest steward Kay and I happened upon it, the flowering globes were giving their nectar to two forms of Tiger swallowtail, and one Zebra swallowtail.

Years ago I rarely saw butterflies, or most other insects for that matter, in the densely shady place this forest had become. But forests change – thanks to the removal of invasive shrubs in the understory, and the death of the ash trees – the forest is now full of sunny gaps littered with the remains of big trees. As flowering herbaceous plants fill the gaps, butterflies find them. But few flowering shrubs have the appeal of the Buttonbush, whose hundreds of long-tubed blooms can be easily plumbed by a butterfly’s long tongue.


Tiger swallowtail, female dark form

To get nectar from these aerial pincushions, butterflies must dangle upside down, holding on with their tiny hooked “tarsal claws”.


Tiger  swallowtail, yellow form
Zebra swallowtail

While it’s been thrilling to see so many Tiger swallowtails drifting through the understory lately, the growing presence of Zebra Swallowtails is something special. Though this forest abounds with Pawpaw, the Zebra caterpillar’s only food plant, until recently the butterflies were absent. This is the first summer I have observed them in numbers, and I’ve been waiting for it to happen.


I don’t know if they found their way here naturally or with human help – but either way they are certainly welcome. Their striking pattern suggests a more tropical origin –  which is true for butterfly and food plant alike. The range maps for Common pawpaw and Zebra swallowtails match perfectly, and though Kentucky is smack in the middle of the range, both species have more numerous subtropical relatives.


Speaking of foodplants, the Buttonbush shines in that department as well – its foliage feeders include the larvae of the Promethea moths (Callosamia promethea), smartweed caterpillars (the smeared dagger moths, Acronicta oblinita), beautiful wood-nymph larvae (Eudryas grata), and hydrangea sphinx moth larvae (Darapsa versicolor).

All the more reason to grow it. This year we planted ten 3 gallon Buttonbushes in various moist sunny places in the forest. As those wetland gaps continue to open up, next year we’ll plant a lot more. And apparently this shrub doesn’t require wet soils to be happy, just not really dry ones – so you too can grow your very own Buttonbush.











13 thoughts on “7/21 The Buttonbush

    1. Kenny Karem

      The buttonbush is in bloom now along the Louisville Loop in the Parklands, going west from the Seaton Hall shelter on the left next to the concrete road wall

      Liked by 1 person

  1. shoreacres

    I first came across this plant in Arkansas, at the Pond Lake Wildlife Management Area. It was October, and the blooms were gone, so all saw were those dark red fruits. I had no idea what they were, and my research skills weren’t so finely honed then, so it took nearly two years to connect them to the flowers.

    I’d seen buttonbush in some nurseries and gardens, but never had found it in the wild until about a month ago, when I found it in East Texas, right at the edge of a small lake. It really was exciting to see, and photograph. I’d have more photos, except that a couple came along and said, “Uh — did you know this is the path the alligators often use to come in and out of the lake?” I decided the photos I had were sufficient.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. oneforestfragment

      Thanks Jim – that’s a great idea and I will start collecting pics for it. The dark form is only the female, apparently it’s a mimic of the distasteful Pipevine swallowtail. There are several – the Black, Spicebush, and Pipevine swallowtails that look pretty similar and can be hard to tall apart.


  2. Joseph Jannuzzi

    So I live about 2 miles from the shores of Lake Erie and when I moved here decided to plant natives in my yard. Experience taught me to check out local natives and found Buttonbush growing everywhere in the wetter areas around Erie, PA along with Red-twig dogwood and Wafer Ash (all good for butterflies). I have a Buttonbush in my backyard by the downspout and it gets covered with globular flowers that bring in all the butterflies including Tiger Swallowtails and Monarchs looking for nectar sources. Also covered with honeybees and native bees. Added treat is that the flowers form round seed globes that have nutlets that wildlife love. The plant does best in sunny and moist locations but is adaptable. This is a much better plant than non-native butterfly bush and butterflies will readily seek this plant out if you plant it. I have pictures of my bush covered with butterflies.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. tonytomeo

    That thing looks silly. I want to grow it even more. I believe that Forest Farm actually had it in their catalogue. I found it to be intriguing somewhere, but I can not remember; and I had never actually seen the real thing.
    Snowberry has a way of sneaking up on people like this too. It is the sort of thing that is easily ignored, and then one day, the funny looking round white fruits are there. There are so odd and unexpected.
    Beautyberry is another one I so want to try, or at least see in a garden somewhere. It looks so odd.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. oneforestfragment

      Yes I like the look of it too -and it’s actually good for something. So many ornamental plant cultivars are just a pretty face – thinking of the snowball hydrangeas, which have no real flowers, just showy bracts. When I saw a wild hydrangea in full bloom, bees were all over it.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. tonytomeo

        In our region, I have contention with the garden varieties (or main variety) of coastal redwood. It woks great in landscape situations, but is not designed for nature. I am slightly concerned about its monoculture, and how it might affect adjacent forests. I know it is not likely a problem, but I prefer the wild trees (where appropriate) anyway.


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