737 Cephalanthus occidentalisCommon Names: buttonbush, honey bells, button willow Family: Rubiaceae (madder Family)
Buttonbush is a rounded, open branched wetland shrub that can potentially get as large as 20 ft (6.1 m) tall but is normally about 6-8 ft (1.8-2.4 m) tall with a similar spread. It usually has a rather scrubby appearance and a few dead branches. Buttonbush has deciduous leaves, with most arranged in opposite pairs and some in whorls of 3 or 4, even on the same plant. The leaves are oval or elliptic, 3-6 in (7.6-15.2 cm) long and 2-4 in (5.1-10.2 cm) wide. The tiny flowers are creamy white and borne in dense spherical heads a little more than 1 in (2.5 cm) in diameter. The flower balls are shaped like pincusions and stand on 2 in (5.1 cm) stalks in clusters arising from stem tips and from leaf axils. They are sweetly fragrant and produced over a long period in late spring and summer. The flowers give way to little reddish brown nutlets which give the hanging balls a rough texture. The fruit balls may persist on the tree through the winter. Botanists recognize several naturally occurring varieties.
Buttonbush, Cephalanthus occidentalis, occurs in swamps and marshes, and along streams and ponds, from Nova Scotia south throughout Florida and the West Indies, west to Minnesota, Texas, and Mexico, and scattered across the southwestern US to central California. It typically grows in places that have standing water part of the year, and sometimes forms pure, very dense stands. There are a half dozen or so other species of Cephalanthus occurring in Asia and Africa; buttonbush is the only species native to the New World.
CultureLight: Full sun is best. Moisture: Buttonbush does best with moist soil and it cannot tolerate drought. Hardiness: USDA Zones 5 - 10. Propagation: Buttonbush can be grown from seeds sown in spring. The seeds germinate quickly without any pretreatment. It also is easily started from semi-ripe tip cuttings in spring or hardwood cuttings in winter, inserted in moist sand or potting medium.
Buttonbush is a wetland plant, but it can be grown in ordinary soils in a shrub border or naturalized landscape if given supplemental water during dry spells. Buttonbush is at its best, though, along a pond or stream, or in an area where the soil is frequently wet. It does best with moisture retentive soils and it tolerates soggy soils. Buttonbush responds well to pruning and can be kept at a small size
The Choctaw and Seminole peoples used decoctions of buttonbush bark for treating several internal maladies including diarrhea and stomach aches.
Buttonbush is a fast growing and short lived shrub that is coarse textured and not particularly attractive except for the unusual looking flowers which smell like honey and are attractive to bees, butterflies and hummingbirds. The seeds are important wildlife food, especially for ducks, and the dense, impenetrable thickets provide nesting and escape cover for many wetland birds.
The national champion buttonbush is 20 ft (6.1 m) tall and has a trunk diameter at breast height of 20 in (50.8 cm); it grows in (where else?) Buttonwillow, California.
Steve Christman 7/10/00; updated 2/24/04, 7/3/04