Tuesday, August 30, 2016


Tiger Swallowtails enjoying Buttonbush blooms.

     My all-time favorite pollinator shrub is Buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis). I've not only seen tons of bees, butterflies, wasps and even hummingbirds nectar on the fragrant white globular flowers, but you'd be amazed at all the pollinators who visit the flower heads at night. I've seen many moths, beetles, and other nocturnal fliers attracted to the white blooms and their perfume. Few people of course are out in wetlands to witness these night time visitors.

A Bumblebee and Tiger Swallowtail share a Honeyball treat.

     This wetland shrub goes by a great variety of common names, most associated with either its habitat or flowers: Honeyballs, Button-willow, Pin-ball, Little Snowball, Pond Dogwood, Crane-willow, Globe-flower, and River-bush to name a few. It's scientific name is derived from the Greek for "head" (Cephalo) and "anthus" (flower). Occidentalis refers to it being from the West. It is in the Coffee Family (Rubiaceae). There are 6 other members of the genus.
     This multi-stemmed shrub can grow to 20' (though 5'-12' is more typical) right in the water, though it can take drier conditions as well. It has whorled or opposite leaves and stems. It is often one of the last native trees to leaf out in the spring. The leaves tend to turn yellowish in the Fall. Where it gets sufficient sun, it can bloom profusely, and often for more than a month at a time. The seed heads are round and to some look like old time buttons, thus its most common name. They can hang for most of the winter on the branches. The seeds float and can also get stuck to birds, both of these being the primary means of seed dispersal. 

The winter seed heads.

     At least 24 different bird species have been recorded eating the nutlets (about 8 of these being waterfowl). Nineteen different caterpillar species have been found to feed on it as well, despite the leaves having the toxic chemical cephalathin. But again, it's the large numbers of pollinators that visit this plant that is what really stands out, whether day or night. Here's a short video to give you an idea of its popularity:


     According to noted ethnobotanist Daniel Moerman, numerous Native American Indian tribes were recorded making use of this woody plant. The Chickasaw made a poultice from its roots to treat sore eyes. The Choctaw not only used the roots for their eyes, but also chewed the bark for toothaches and made a bark tea for both dysentery and fevers. The Kiowa used a root solution for hemorrhages while the Koasati used buttonbush to treat rheumatism and sore muscles. The Meskwaki used the bark to induce vomiting. The Seminole made the most use of it, using it for headaches, diarrhea, urinary disorders, constipation, menstruation, fevers, stomach aches, and as a laxative. 
     During the Civil War, Confederate doctor Francis Porcher was tasked with coming up with homegrown alternatives to items no longer available due to Union blockades and war shortages. Calling it crane-willow, he recorded that a decoction from the roots could be used for persistent coughs and as an anti-venereal. He claimed it made a pleasant syrup for lung issues: "It is thought by many intelligent persons to be a radical cure for consumption." 
     Some people have discovered that this makes a great garden plant. In addition to its fragrant, pollinator favorite blooms, it can take some difficult growing conditions. Its tolerance for wet feet (it is considered a wetland obligate plant) makes it a good choice for rain gardens and to deal with erosion control. It can also take some severe pruning, having evolved to having beavers chew on it. The seed heads (achenes) give winter interest. Of course, few plants can hold a candle to it for butterfly and pollinator gardens. It is easy to see why I consider it my favorite pollinator shrub.

A Pipevine Swallowtail on Buttonbush.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you! What a fascinating article! I saw these at Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens and did not know what they were. I posted a picture of them on Facebook because I thought they were so interesting. Today a friend posted a link there to your article. Perfect timing!!!