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Cephalanthus occidentalis

Photo: Dr. Robert Polomski

Take a new look at this wildlife favorite.

The waterlogged areas (a.k.a. “hog wallows”) of a landscape prove to be inhospitable to many shrubs and trees. Not buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis). This deciduous North American native wetland shrub can be found growing in the Carolinas in low-lying areas, swamps, marshes, bogs, pocosins, and along the edges of ponds, streams, and rivers.

Since its introduction to the nursery trade in 1735, buttonbush has always been lauded for its utility rather than its beauty. Its other common name, honey bells, refers to its importance in honey production. Buttonbush has also been used to restore wetlands and control erosion in riparian areas.

In gardening circles, buttonbush languishes in obscurity. Oftentimes, writers describe the appearance of this 8 to 12 ft. high and wide shrub as unkempt or disheveled. Sure, the many wayward branches need to be pruned back to side shoots to create the semblance of a well-behaved shrub, but don’t we all have those bad hair days that require dollops of gel and mousse to tame those unmanageable locks?

Its unrefined look fades away in mid-to-late summer when buttonbush blooms. These extraordinary, extraterrestrial-looking gumball to golf ball-sized flower clusters demand attention. Each sphere is comprised of hundreds of fragrant, creamy-white tubular flowers that attract an assortment of bees, butterflies and moths. When the flowers mature, their reddish-brown nutlets sustain a variety of birds.

Buttonbush thrives in constantly moist to wet locations—even standing water—in full sun to partial shade. Avoid dry soils which are like kryptonite to this shrub.

To gain wider acceptance, the industry has introduced cultivars with the trademark blooms but possess dense, compact, upright forms such as 'Bailoptics' (Fiber optics®), ‘J. N. Select A’ (Ping Pong™), 'Kolmoon' (Magical® Moonlight), ‘Sputnik’, and 'SMCOSS'(Sugar Shack®).

Admittedly, buttonbush may never become as popular as azaleas, gardenias, and crape myrtles, but when planted in the right environment, buttonbush will be a treat for people and wildlife.