Button Up

Buttonbush flower with antenna hairs in A Garden For All by Kathy Diemer https://agardenforall.com

Buttonbush flower with antenna-like pistils (photo by: Kathy Diemer)

The first thing I think of when the white mid-summer pom-pom flowers of our native button bush emerge is Horton (of Horton Hears a Who by Dr. Seuss) the elephant walking around with his microscopic community; all thriving in a fuzzy, miniscule orb atop a delicate stem.  Yet, no one in the jungle of Nool; not the kangaroos, not the monkeys, not even the evil vulture that snatches the tiny planet of Whoville from Horton and drops it miles away in an open meadow, believes that this little orb could be home to any living thing.  Perhaps I embellish with thoughts of a colony living in a flower head, but button bush does provide lodging and sustenance for a small population of our native fauna and insects . . .    

Cephalanthus occidentalis in the landscape in A Garden For All by Kathy Diemer https://agardenforall.com

Cephalanthus occidentalis in the landscape (photo by: Kathy Diemer)

Cephalanthus occidentalis, commonly known as button bush or honey ball, is a multi-stemmed native shrub found in wetlands from Minnesota to Florida and from New England to California.  Often wider than tall, button bush grows from 8 to 12 feet in height, and over 20 feet wide in full sun (or light shade) and medium to wet soil, zones 4-10. Because of its love of moisture, Cephalanthus occidentalis adores a waterfront location, and will work perfectly along a stream bank, helping to control erosion while adding natural beauty to the landscape.  But don’t banish button bush from your border design, as this shrub will thrive in a garden setting (tolerates acidic or clay soils) with minimal pruning, while providing interest throughout the seasons.

Buttonbush's red fall color in A Garden For All by Kathy Diemer https://agardenforall.com

Buttonbush’s red fall color (photo by: Kathy Diemer)

The fragrant ivory globes (1 inch in diameter) that adorn this small tree in summer certainly steal the show, but button bush has more to offer.  Much more.  Though late to leaf out in spring (don’t panic like I do), when the leaves unfurl in spring they are a rich, glossy green (up to 8 inches long), and very lush along the branches.  When the celebrated round spheres first appear in summer they have a series of antenna-like tendrils that stand erect like a head of hair with a bad case of static electricity.  These delectable seed heads remain as ornaments on the shrub well into the winter, turning shades of crimson and bronze, until finally consumed by local wildlife.  The emerald leaves of summer transform to maroon or gold in autumn, and when they drop, a multi-branched trunk is exposed.  The bark of Cephalanthus occidentalis reveals textures of smoky grey and hazel brown that weave up and down the trunk’s exterior.

Tiger Swallowtail enjoying a buttonbush blossom in A Garden For All by Kathy Diemer https://agardenforall.com

Tiger Swallowtail enjoying a buttonbush blossom (photo by: Kathy Diemer)

When in bloom, the sweetly scented alabaster orbs, rich in nectar, invite bees, butterflies and hummingbirds for a nutritious drink (*Cephalanthus occidentalis is a host plant for the Sphinx Moth). In my summer garden there are often multiple visitors to this beneficial shrub, sometimes simultaneously, which provides entertainment while working or simply strolling by.  Along ponds and streams, native ducks love to lounge underneath button bush’s canopy while nibbling the appetizers dangling from its limbs. So, whether you’re looking for a companion for your wetland garden or something straight out of a Dr. Seuss tale, give the button bush a closer look, you never know what it might tell you~


  1. I remember those…. maybe one would live next to the pond?

    • You could have a whole “family” of button bushes around your pond if you wanted! They would love that area . . . and the critters usually don’t bother them too much, either. A win-win.

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