ITG buttonbush flowers

The ball-like flowers of buttonbush are unique and interesting structures that are quite popular among pollinating insects.

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I always love it when a particular plant that I know from the natural world doubles as a landscape plant.

Not everything that is beautiful in nature can handle what we throw at it in human landscapes; some native plants are just too sensitive.

However, one old favorite of mine from wetland habitats across Illinois is quickly becoming a new favorite in landscape situations as well, not only for its beauty or its great benefits to pollinators, but also for its overall adaptability in the landscape.

Buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis) is native to nearly every county in Illinois, occupying a wide range of habitats, often forming dense thickets in the right location. It frequents many of the wetter locations in nature, thriving along streambanks and popping up in wetlands with the ability to grow in nearly aquatic settings that hold water most of the year.

This plant’s adaptability is one of its major strengths in landscape settings. It can handle wet or poorly drained areas in your yard, making it the perfect plant for a problematic wet area. Overly dry locations are probably its weakness, although many compacted, poorly drained urban soils hold adequate moisture for buttonbush nonetheless.

Many wetland plants like buttonbush are highly adaptable to changing and varying soil moisture due to the ephemeral nature of seasonal wetlands, so it can handle the wide range of conditions our urban environments present.

However, I have always loved this plant in nature due to the fact that it pops all over the place. I’ve seen it on the edge of large wetlands or shaded edges or openings in woodlands, as well as dense thickets in standing water, reminiscent of the mangroves that many of us may know from the tropics.

Although buttonbush thrives and flowers best in full sun, it is quite comfortable in locations with part shade as well, opening it up to a wide range of planting locations. It works quite well in the edges of shade gardens under larger trees or in a shady side yard that only gets a few hours of sun a day.

It seems like I am always looking for a taller plant to accent shaded areas, and buttonbush certainly fits the bill.

Perhaps this plant’s greatest landscape value lies in its flowers and fruits. The unique, ball-like flower structures are like no other with interesting protruding styles (or pollen receptors) that create a pincushion-like appearance.

Additionally, it flowers for a large chunk of mid-summer, providing a valuable resource to our pollinators. As summer changes to fall, the flowers transition in spherical fruits that turn a wonderful shade of deep red, adding some autumn beauty. The fruits then persist on the plant to provide winter interest as well.

If you plant a buttonbush, the pollinators will certainly come, as it is quite popular among native bees and flies, with literature noting over a dozen species that frequent the plant. It is also host to eight species of native leaf feeding insects and more than two dozen native species of birds, which eat the fruits throughout winter.

If you are interested in learning more about buttonbush and other native trees and shrubs, please join me at 6 p.m. on July 31 in the University of Illinois Extension auditorium (801 N. Country Fair Drive, C) for a free presentation on “Selection and Care of Native Trees and Shrubs.”

I will cover a list of almost 20 native trees and shrubs that are well-suited to central Illinois, going through all the things these plants need to thrive in your landscape, with plenty of time for questions. This event is free and open to the public, but we do ask for folks to register in advance for planning purposes. The event registration is available at go.illinois.edu/Natives.

My presentation was designed to cover many of the plants offered in the East Central Illinois Master Naturalist’s 2019 Native Tree and Shrub Sale. This year’s sale features 23 native trees and shrubs (including buttonbush) available for order anytime between now and Aug 7. Plants may be picked up on Oct. 4-5 at a designated location in Champaign-Urbana. Go online for more information or to order plants at go.illinois.edu/ECIMNPlantSale.

Ryan Pankau is a horticulture educator with the UI Extension, serving Champaign, Ford, Iroquois and Vermilion counties.