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The Good and Bad about Butterfly Bushes

I have always liked Buddleia, commonly called butterfly bush and summer lilac. Buddleia 'Lochinch'These fast growing deciduous shrubs produce fragrant panicles of flowers in shades of purple, pink, white and even yellow from summer into fall. They attract pollinators and look great in flower arrangements. What's not to like?

First, in some parts of the country the commonly grown butterfly bush, Buddleia davidii, is invasive; in some areas it is banned from sale entirely. Fortunately, some smaller cultivars, such as the Lo and Behold series that includes the Blue Chip butterfly bush, are sterile. These compact butterfly bushes grow to about 3 feet and are a good solution for smaller spaces. If one is looking for a larger butterfly bush, there are some low-fertility species available, including Buddleia weyeriana, Buddleia nivea and Buddleia fallowiana. In areas where invasiveness is a concern, it is always best to remove flowers before they go to seed.

One also needs to know that while these non-natives may provide nectar for adult butterflies, they are not a source of food for butterfly larvae; so if one wants to create a sanctuary for butterflies, there must be additional plants to host caterpillars.

I am currently growing Flutterby Petite Tutti Fruiti.

This is another sterile cultivar that will reach to about three feet. It has delightful pink blooms that come in flushes from early summer till frost. I have planted Rue (Ruta graveolens) nearby to serve as a caterpillar host plant for the Swallowtail butterflies that are common in my area. Some other host plants in my garden include Aster, Black-Eyed Susan (Rudbeckia), Coneflower (Echinacea), Violet (Viola), False Indigo (Baptisia), Dogwood (Cornus), and Sweet Bay Magnolia (Magnolia Virginiana). I must also mention that, despite Buddleia's reputation as a butterfly magnet, in my garden butterflies prefer flowers such as coneflowers, garlic chives and cosmos. If you want butterflies in your garden, it is always best to provide multiple sources of attraction.

Despite some drawbacks, in many areas the first plant people think about when they want a butterfly garden is a butterfly bush. These shrubs also appeal to bees and other pollinators, as well as hummingbirds.Buddleia davidii produces long, arching branches to 8 feet or more. Butterfly bushes in the northern range of their hardiness are likely to die to the ground during the winter but will quickly regrow come spring. Even if there is no winter die-back, one may control the size by cutting the shrub back to about to 12 inches in late winter or early spring. This will also encourage more prolific flowering since most Buddleias bloom on the current season's growth. Severe pruning is not absolutely necessary, and the larger types can be trained into tree form.

Buddleia will grow in hardiness zones 5-10, depending on the cultivar, and does best in full sun, in moist, well-draining soil. When planting, add compost or other organic matter to promote good drainage. Buddleias are fairly drought tolerant once established, but to encourage blooming they should be watered in the summer months if there is less than about 1 inch of water per week.

In addition to the smaller ones mentioned above, some good cultivars include:

Nanho Blue. This one grows to about five feet. It has silvery foliage and an extremely long bloom time.

Lochinch.  I grew this one for years. It reaches to about 8 feet and has lavender-blue flowers that are wonderfully fragrant.

White Profusion, a very large shrub that can grow up to 15 feet. The lightly scented, pure white flower clusters measure from one to two feet. This one can be trained into a tree form. 

Butterfly bushes are fairly low maintenance and suffer from few diseases, though die-back or fungal leaf spot may sometimes appear. 



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Reader Comments (21)

we have 2 South AFrican species of Buddleja
Here, I have one that smells delectable in bloom.

In the False Bay garden is a HUGE commonorgarden Buddleja which has claimed a swathe. Going to be a mission to convert to a desirable indigenous for biodiversity.

August 3, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterDiana Studer

None of my Buddleia have ever seeded in much. Hardly at all, perhaps because I mulch the garden a lot. If I buy any new butterfly bushes though I will look into them anyway! I bought a 'Miss Molly' from Plant Delights and the color was gorgeous but the plant died over the winter. Sad because the color really is extraordinary. Almost everyone who went to the nursery came out with a 'Miss Molly'. lol It's a hybrid that produces very little seed.

August 3, 2014 | Unregistered Commentersweetbay

There are so many Buddleias out there that are not invasive and yet so ornamental and so beneficial for butterflies. Great post. Debs, very informative especially on the companion plants!

August 3, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMark and Gaz

I stopped worrying about Buddleia years back. They are very susceptible to root-knot nematodes. When I figured out that was why mine always died -- I could successfully root cuttings but not grow full sized bushes in ground -- I sought other nectar plants.

August 3, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterNell Jean

Hi Deb: I've noticed that many people have strong feelings about this shrub on one side or the other. Since I don't have personal experience growing it, I can only go on others' opinions and knowledge, and my second-hand observations. First, I find them incredibly beautiful, especially when covered with dozens of butterflies. I saw some last October covered with migrating Monarchs and it was stunning! Obviously, butterflies do enjoy them. With that said, there are some native shrubs that apparently have similar results (such as Buttonbush--although it apparently prefers shade). But as you mention, if you plant the sterile Buddleias and make sure you have plenty of native plants, you're accomplishing multiple goals and not harming the environment. So, that's how I personally feel about, although as I said I don't have personal experience. This is a great post! Thank you!

August 3, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterBeth @ PlantPostings

I'm low on larval host plants this year - I must remedy that. I recently planted my 1st Buddleja - 'Ellen's Blue' reported to grow about 4'x4' with low water requirements. We shall see. It's been slow to get started.

August 3, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterKris P

Last spring I planted a butterfly bush in a large flower pot on my balcony. To attract butterflies. So far only one butterfly visited my garden. I guess my garden isn't only lacking in flowers but also in plants that can host caterpillars.

August 4, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterDenise

I find Verbena bonariensis is actually more attractive to the butterflies here. They do grow easily so the warning is good. Also it is important to hard prune the larger varieties in early spring if you decide to grow those. Flutterby Petite Tutti Fruiti is really cute.

August 4, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterChristina

We owned a summer house in South Dartmouth Ma for about 10yrs, with a davidii variety growing right outside the front door. I actually HATED that thing...it was messy and I thought it looked a wreck. Now you might say, just chop it down., which i would have it I'd been allowed.

The house was an old caretaker cottage on the grounds of what had been a huge mansion estate: the heirs of the original estate owners had some strange legal claim to the plantings around thiis caretaker's place and those in an adjacent walled garden. Their claim allowed for "maintenance only of original plantings" and this buddleia was one of many we couldn't do much but live with as is!

Buying that house was an enormo pain in the a$$. It was a rock bottom price thing, but the legal wrangling over it wound up costing so much we could have built a brand new gorgeous property. Unbelievably the sale almost fell apart in the last 5mins of the closing and I was ready to walk out but my now ex-husband was DETERMINED we get it. Although he was wrong about many other things in life, his instincts about making money from this antique cottage were dead-on
When it came time to sell (during our divorce, 10 yrs later) we made a fortune on the place and he got to say "I told you so" LOL win win, esp for him! :)
i did learn one valuable lesson from the experience: negotiations with crazy rich people should be avoided!!!!!

August 4, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterkaren mulhern

I wouldn't be without the buddleias that I have here. I keep deadheading them so that they won't go to seed but it also encourages more flowers to open further down the stem. I find that the white one that I have is far more perfumed than the others and is always covered in various butterflies and bees.

August 5, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterPauline

We are lucky here because buddleias are not prolific in our winters generally. You don't find them traveling to neighbor's gardens. I have Lo and Behold and would gladly give it away. It never performed well in size, shape or color. Butterflies are not happy with it either, maybe because it is sterile (will still seed on occasion) or because it is too short. It grows kinda like a carpeting plant, very spreading. Our soil is heavy red clay, and that may be a reason for the poor performance. I have had it five years, so that is plenty of time to get established. I love seeing the taller varieties in gardens, now those are filled with butterflies.

August 5, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterDonna

Hi Deb,

As I understand it (from Dirr and others) even some of the supposedly "sterile" varieties of Buddleja davidii are not really as sterile as they were first thought to be. (It's like Jurassic Park - "Nature finds a way.")

That said, Dirr says the "Asian Moon" B. davidii is the first "truly sterile" introduction - http://goo.gl/EGCP53

I think the x weyeriana cultivars are also supposed to be non-invasive. I planted one called Golden Glow this past spring. It seemed to have a tough time settling in (transplant shock? Lots of yellowing and dropping leaves) but is doing better now and even flowering a little, though it hasn't grown much. Haven't seen any butterflies on it yet. As you say, they seem to prefer zinnias (of which I don't have as many this year), cosmos, Echinacea, French Marigolds (Tagetes patula), etc. But hope springs eternal. Perhaps when my Golden Glow butterfly bush is bigger it will do a better job of bringing in the butterflies...

August 5, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterAaron Dalton

Oh, your photos are lovely, loved the butterflies! I used to have a Buddleia davidii, but it grew so big it became a monster I had to prune several times every summer to keep tamed. I finally got rid of it, but this year I got a dwarf buddleia, Buddleia 'Blue Chip' and it is about to flower now. I hope it will keep as small as promised by the nursery.

August 5, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterHelene

Firstly, what beautiful photos of the butterflies. I don't have room for a large buddleia in my garden, so I have Buddleja Buzz, a patio bush that only grows to around 47 inches in height. It's in a pot, looks really great and is providing food for the butterflies without taking up too much room. I do enjoy seeing larger Buddleja in the hedgerows here though.

August 6, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterPaula@SpoonsnSpades

I loved mine until they became so invasive we had thousands of seedlings growing everywhere and yrs after pulling them we still have tons of seedlings I have to pull. I go without them now and provide the native host and nectar plants. I will say that the butterflies rarely visited my bushes as they preferred the natives nearby.

August 7, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterDonna@Gardens Eye View

Hi Deb
Good points regarding the Buddleia,we always had them in our last garden, Lochinch was our favourite. Do I like them enough to try and find space in a small garden which we now have, not so sure. Love your pictures with the Butterflies.

August 10, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterAlistair

Invasive? I can't get butterfly bush to come back after the winter so invasiveness hasn't been a problem.

August 10, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterLinda Jones

I do grow buddliea but it certainly isn't the only butterfly plant that I use. Those are too numerous to mention!

August 11, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterRobinL

I find that hummingbirds also like Butterfly bushes, although not as much as they like my lantana or salvia. I grow Buddleia 'Miss Molly' in my yard. It is a 5' tall sterile, magenta flowered cultivar from Dr. Dennis Werner's NC State University Buddleia breeding program. Per your recommendations above, I also really like Lochinch. The blue flowers look great with its silvery foliage.

September 8, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterDennis

hi can yu pls answer me a question as im quite concered and cant get any sense out of the garden centre why is it that the 1st yr after planting my Buddlia Davidia lots of butterflies and bees were always on it but last yr just a few and this yr even less I hardly see any even the white cabbage 1s seem to ignore it yet theres many blooms on it /but they go brown not long after blooming hope yu can help thank yu Tanith

July 23, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterTanith

Hello Tanith,
Are you seeing a general decrease in butterflies throughout your garden? If so, the problem may not have much to do with your individual shrubs. Butterflies and other pollinators have been having a hard time due to the increase use of pesticides in the environment. If you are using systemic pesticides, you will see a decrease in your butterfly population. Even plants which are sold to attract butterflies are sometimes treated with systemic pesticides by commercial growers. This is particularly cruel, as the blooms lure the butterflies and bees to their deaths. Also, some communities are sprayed with chemicals to kill mosquitos, and these chemicals will also harm butterflies. This practice has increased since the spread of the mosquito-born zika virus.

The best thing you can do is to make your garden a refuge for the pollinators. Continue to plant flowering plants to attract butterflies and bees, and use organic products in your garden that won't harm the pollinators. You may want to plant some host plants for the caterpillars, so that butterflies will lay eggs in your garden. You will then provide a good environment for the entire life cycle of the butterfly.

As for the care of your butterfly bush, be sure to water if you receive at less than an inch of rainfall every week. Don't over fertilize, but do apply a good layer of mulch around its base. It is good to use an organic fertilizer with a higher phosphorus content (that's the middle number of the three numbers you see on fertilizer containers).

Best wishes!

July 24, 2016 | Registered CommenterDeborah Elliott

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