Looking for harmony in the garden? Look at the butterfly bush

Published 9:45 am Sunday, February 18, 2007

Buddleia a.k.a butterfly bush, was named after seventeenth-century Englishman and amateur botanist Reverend Adam Buddle. It wasn’t until 1774 that the first butterfly bush reached England. At that time Buddle was honored posthumously for his discovery. Although most buddleia species come from Japan and northwestern China, this species (Buddleia globosa) was collected in Chile.

Plant explorers during the Victorian era returned from long collecting excursions with wonderful seed, bulbs and plants. Seed of Buddleia davidii collected in China arrived at London’s Kew Gardens in 1896. This species was named after Pere Armand David, a French Jesuit missionary. The search for “new” species and varieties continues today and is largely concentrated in the Himalayan foothills.

Buddleia davidii, the common hardy species grown in the U.S., is a woody perennial that is also classifed as a semi-evergreen shrub. Fast growth and the fact that it requires little care once established, make this butterfly magnet an exciting addition to any garden. From late spring until the first frost this species attracts hundreds of butterflies to its nectar, making it the perfect plant to place near a window for gazing at on lazy, hot summer days.

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Hummingbirds love butterfly bush too. The hundreds of small tubular blossoms are the perfect size for nectar sipping. Talk about bang for your buck! And for no extra, bees and other insect pollinators will take up residence in your garden too.

Opposite, lance shaped, gray-green foliage on long arching stems give butterfly bush a natural weeping form. Profuse panicles from 8 to 18 inches long are full of hundreds of small honey-scented flowers, making the name “summer lilac” another popular descriptive common name.

Buddleia davidii blooms on new growth. Spending a few minutes deadheading your shrub after blooming is one way to encourage new growth. Shaping the shrub and trimming any wayward branches throughout the growing season will also help to encourage continued growth, hence more fabulous flowers.

In fall, discontinue trimming on buddleia except for shape maintainence or to prune damaged or dead stalks. Do not cut the shrub back before freezing temperatures. In the case of butterfly bush, wait until late winter or early spring to prune. Trimming during dormancy may weaken or kill your precious specimen. After pruning, apply a light dose of fertilizer.

When pruning after dormancy, the entire plant may be cut back to the ground, simply shaped up, or anywhere in between. Just remember that the plant can become rather topheavy when it is full of flowers, so you want to create a strong, sturdy bush.

Obviously using insecticides around buddleia is not advisable. This will kill the butterflies and other insect pollinators. Hummingbirds may become very ill or worse. Be careful using pesticides nearby and stay aware of any drifting a chemical may do, due to winds.

Give butterfly bush plenty of room to grow. A width of at least 6 feet, in a sunny or partially shaded spot is necessary. Some varieties may reach a height or 12 ft. or more after several years if pruned judiciously. Well drained soil is a must. Buddleia does not like to sit in water even for short periods.

Butterfly bush is lovely as a single specimen or as an anchor plant for a colorful garden dedicated in part to butterflies. Their fragrance makes them an ideal choice near a path or patio. Add some lantana, pentas, verbena and zinnias for the top 5 top butterfly nectar plants. Salvia, Mexican cigar plant and cardinal flower will create an even more delicious hummingbird hangout.

Harmony in the garden. What more could a gardener ask for?

Traci Maier writes a weekly column about gardening in the Miss-Lou. She can be reached by e-mail at ratmaier@bellsouth.net.