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Butterfly bush

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Butterfly_bushWho can resist the allure of a plant named butterfly bush? Just mentioning this name gives us a good feeling. The image that immediately comes to mind is Monarchs, Swallowtails, and other butterflies flitting to and fro about this brightly colored plant in the warm sunshine. Another image is one of brightly colored flowers, pleasing to the eye, while many other plants struggle to flower during the hottest part of the summer.

Butterfly bush, or Buddleia, has long been a garden favorite. Like many favorite garden plants, this group of summer flowering shrubs recently received an industry makeover. The result is a plant gardeners should consider, deserving of a place in the landscape or flower garden.   

Buddleia is a resilient plant. It is right at home in our Kansas City gardens being hardy from zone 5 to 9. Butterfly bush occasionally has problems with winterkill, resulting in sporadic dieback in the canopy. This is not a problem. In fact, it might be a big help for those gardeners uneasy about pruning shrubs. Although the plant is tolerant of winter conditions, it sometimes struggles to survive during a wet, cold winter. The roots are susceptible to root rot, which leads to the plant dying. Even though butterfly bush is a perennial shrub, it can fail under these winter conditions.     

Butterfly bush is a summer flowering shrub blooming best when located in full sun. It will tolerate part-sun and bloom just fine, but the increasing shade will reduce flowering. If it does not thrive, try relocating it into more sunshine. Keep in mind the butterflies prized for necturing on this plant prefer the warm sun.

Watering needs are minimal as the plant is drought tolerant. With that being said, like any plant, it will flower and thrive best with a steady supply of moisture.     

Proper pruning of this plant is a must for best flowering. Fortunately, it is a simple process. Butterfly bush flowers on new growth, meaning the shoots that develop during the growing season produce all the flowers. The recommended style of pruning for this is referred to as rejuvenation. Basically, that means the plant is cut back hard each spring just before growth begins. Remove all limbs or branches back to a height of about 1 foot. If you are a hedge trimming kind of pruner, this is the plant for you. The only way you can fail at pruning this plant is by either not pruning it at all, or not cutting it back enough. Once the upper stems are removed, cut or break off all the dead stems back to the ground to clean up the base of the plant.

The beauty of this plant is the fact that it will flower for an extended period compared to other shrubs. Flowering begins in June and will continue blooming until the first frost in September or October.

Deadheading is the removal of the old flower clusters. Some people wonder if this plant needs deadheading. My answer is it depends on your style. Remove the faded flowers for the best flower production. The more the plant is deadheaded, the bigger the reward. Just snip off the blooms below the long arching flower stalk to encourage new growth and flowering. It helps keeps the plant cleaner and more beautiful.

If you have grown this plant, you know they can get quite large. The old standard favorite varieties may reach a height of 5 feet or more by the end of summer. They bloom in a variety of colors, including shades of blue, purple, pink, white, and even some bicolor blossoms. There is also a variety of flowers in yellow. The flower clusters are long arching stalks containing many tubular shaped blossoms. This shape makes it easy for the butterflies and hummingbirds to feed, with their long proboscis or beak quickly reaching the sweet nectar.           

Such old-time favorites varieties include; Black Night,’ dark purple; ‘Nanho Blue,’ mauve-purple; ‘Nanho Purple,’ magenta-purple; ‘Pink Delight,’ true pink; ‘Royal Red,’ purple-red; and ‘White Profusion,’ a pure white, to name a few. 

Recent varieties are now compact and sterile. This small, rounded habit helps make the plant even more versatile in the landscape. The dwarf varieties range in height from about 2 to 3 feet. As a result, they work great planted en masse along walks in the front landscape or dotted throughout the traditional perennial garden. These newer dwarf varieties tend to have all the great strengths of their older parent but on a smaller scale. Expect the same heat tolerances, water needs and sun patterns.     

One of the first dwarf varieties on the market was Lo & Behold® ‘Blue Chip’. Our Extension Master Gardeners added it to their demonstration garden years ago. The continuous blooms come in a delightful shade of blue. The panicles are 4 to 6 inches and create an excellent rounded form. Lo & Behold® ‘Purple Haze’ has also been a winner in our demonstration garden, with the same habit as the blue form, but in a delightful light-purple flower color.    

There is a series of dwarf butterfly bushes on the market called Flutterby Petite. The breeders have done a superb job of developing a range of colors. These include ‘Blue Heaven,’ ‘Snow White,’ ‘Tutti Fruitti Pink,’ ‘Dark Pink’ and ‘Pink. Pugster is the newest variety promoted as the plant with the largest flower clusters.            

Butterfly bush has long been a staple in the Kansas City garden for a good reason. But now, with these newer releases, there are even more reasons to include this plant in the garden. As you make your summer planting plans, be sure to include a few butterfly bushes. You will enjoy the summer color while watching the butterflies and hummingbirds also enjoying the garden for years to come.

Other Resources

Have questions? The Garden Hotline is staffed by trained EMG volunteers and Extension staff who will assist you with questions.

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