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Tales from a Plant Addict

Fun (& a few serious) facts, tips and tricks for every gardener, new and old.

Butterfly Bush

I have a personal rule of thumb that I don't give up on growing a plant in my garden until I have killed it at least three times. It may be surprising to some readers that butterfly bush (Buddleia sp.) was a plant I just about gave up on.

The genus Buddleia (originally spelled Buddleia ) was named after a British botanist and clergyman named Reverend Adam Buddle. There are about 100 different species in this genus, native to many different warm parts of the world. Butterfly Bush may seem commonplace and even boring to some, but the species most often grown in this area, Buddleia davidii is actually an exotic import not native to North America. It is native to China.

The species name davidii in Buddleia davidii was given in honor of plantsman Armand David, who discovered the shrub in China. This particular species has been bred extensively and the wide variety of cultivars available is no doubt part of what makes it a very popular landscape plant.

Another reason for its popularity is a dead giveaway in Buddleia davidii's common name butterfly bush—this plant is an absolute butterfly magnet. It is not uncommon to see one bush harboring several different species of colorfully winged visitors all at the same time. The pendulous clusters of tiny orange-throated flowers that look somewhat like small versions of lilacs are attractive to humans too. They also have a very pleasant scent reminiscent of lilac, which is the origin of another of its common names, Summer Lilac.

My first attempts at growing butterfly bush were as a new homeowner, planting an entirely new landscape. Everything I read about them had said they love full sun and while they prefer well-drained, fertile soil, they can adapt to poor soil. They are also tolerant of heat and humidity. Living in a new subdivision, I needed all the full sun, poor soil tolerant plants I could find!

The mail order catalogs I poured over that first year in our home showed pages and pages of various shades of purple, blue, pink, red, white, and even a yellow cultivar called 'Honeycomb', but the cultivar 'Bicolor' caught my eye and I was in love.

The flowers of 'Bicolor' change color with age. The flowers start out a vivid pink-purple color and slowly turn to a butterscotch yellow. At any given time there are two completely different colors on the same plant! The very first mail order I assembled for my brand new landscape contained one Buddleia davidii 'Bicolor'. And a huge trial of my persistence and patience was born.

The plant that arrived was potted, and fairly small. I planted my 'Bicolor' butterfly bush that spring and eagerly waited for its colorful blooms. Within two weeks the plant was clearly dead. I called the company to ask for a replacement, and they couldn't send one until fall. The operator advised me that I might still get some shoots to regrow if I watered well. I watered well but no shoots ever appeared.

What the operator at the mail order company told me was not just a lie to get me off the phone. Most books and other references categorize butterfly bush as a shrub, but in Zones 5 and 6 it typically dies back to the ground each winter much like an herbaceous perennial. New growth emerges from points just beneath the soil surface.

Judging by how big a butterfly bush can get in a single season, its growth rate makes up for lost time each year despite dying back to the ground most years in our Zone 5b/6a climate. Many cultivars routinely achieve dimensions of over six feet tall and wide. Often times the previous year's growth is quite extensive and woody.

In a warmer climate where they don't totally die back each winter, butterfly bushes routinely get to be eight to ten feet tall. In some warmer climates butterfly bush's vigorous growth and ability to spread via seed has earned it the title of being somewhat invasive.

Despite this invasive reputation in some climates, I never did have any success growing the 'Bicolor' cultivar. I had a season's worth of success with an unlabeled plant with purple flowers, which is probably the most common color among butterfly bushes. The mystery plant started out in a four inch pot, it was easily five feet by five feet by summer's end. I planted it near the house for a little extra protection. I mulched it carefully over the winter, and crossed my fingers. In the spring I eagerly awaited any sign of life, realizing that butterfly bush is routinely one of the last plants to wake up in the spring. Nothing ever grew.

I eventually dug around the remains of the butterfly bush to try and figure out what caused its demise. I never did find any clear reason. It was very well established, as evidenced by tons of roots that in some cases were about ten feet long.

Ready to give up on butterfly bush altogether, I chose 6 commonly available cultivars, and planted them in various places around our landscape hoping to find a spot that butterfly bush would survive and thrive over the winter. I only spent about $5 per plant, as in my mind I was done paying premium prices for new cultivars until I figured out if I could keep a butterfly bush alive for more than a season.

I planted:

  • 'Nanho Blue'—semi-dwarf (less than 6 feet tall), compact growth, blue-purple flowers
  • 'Black Night'—standard (over 6 feet tall), deep purple flowers; most commonly available cultivar
  • 'Pink Delight'—standard, light pink flowers, silvery foliage
  • 'Royal Red'—standard, reddish purple flowers
  • 'Orchid Beauty'—standard, light blue-purple flowers
  • 'Empire Blue'—standard, deep blue-purple flowers

Every one of these cultivars has performed very well in my landscape for the last six years. We had a few winters where they didn't die completely to the ground and became quite woody and large. Last winter's icy blasts brought us back to square one with even the largest of our butterfly bushes reduced to a few sprouts emerging from the ground this spring.

I don't know that I did anything different with these plants than I did with the previous 'Bicolor' specimens I planted, but in hindsight, they were larger plants, and they were more or less "workhorse" cultivars that have been around for a lot longer than 'Bicolor'. Maybe if I tried it today 'Bicolor' would fare better in my yard. I may need to revisit this cultivar in years to come.

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