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Buttonbush is a great shrub for naturalizing in wet areas and attracts butterflies. It has glossy green leaves and fragrant, round flower clusters during mid-summer. Native to the Chicago area and the eastern United States, buttonbush attracts more than 24 species of birds, as well as numerous species of butterflies. This species is native to the Chicago Region according to Swink and Wilhelm’s Plants of the Chicago Region, with updates made according to current research.   

  • Family (English) Madder
  • Family (botanic) Rubiaceae
  • Tree or plant type Shrub
  • Foliage Deciduous (seasonally loses leaves)
  • Native locale Chicago area, Illinois, North America
  • Size range Medium shrub (5-8 feet), Large shrub (more than 8 feet)
  • Light exposure Full sun (6 hrs direct light daily), Partial sun / shade (4-6 hrs light daily)
  • Hardiness zones Zone 4, Zone 5 (Northern Illinois), Zone 6 (City of Chicago), Zone 7, Zone 8
  • Soil preference Moist, well-drained soil, Wet soil
  • Tolerances Alkaline soil, Occasional flooding, Wet sites
  • Season of interest midsummer, late summer, early fall, mid fall, late fall
  • Flower color and fragrance Fragrant, White
  • Shape or form Arching, Irregular, Upright
  • Growth rate Moderate

Native geographic location and habitat:

C-Value: 5. Found primarily in wet or lowland areas.

Attracts birds & butterflies:

Buttonbush is a nectar source, attracting hummingbirds and butterflies, such as the tiger swallowtails. It also attracts over 24 species of birds, including robin, kingbird, and towhee. The nutlets that persist through winter are appealing to the birds.

Bark color and texture :

The bark is gray and somewhat peeling, developing  furrows with age.

Leaf or needle arrangement, size, shape, and texture:

Leaves emerge in late spring. They are whorled to opposite in leaf arrangement and  are glossy green, up to 4 inches long and 2 inches wide. Leaf color is medium green in summer turning to yellow in fall.

Flower arrangement, shape, and size:

Flowers are small, white, 1-inch round ball-like clusters which are held on long stems (petioles).

Fruit, cone, nut, and seed descriptions:

A hard, 1-inch, ball-like fruit exhibits a reddish fall color which matures to brown and persists throughout the winter.

Plant care:

This large shrub is 6 to 12 feet high and 12 to 18 feet wide. It has an  upright arching to irregular form. Cultivars can be smaller. Excellent for naturalizing or wet areas, but avoid dry sites. Does best in full sun to part shade in moist to wet soils and is often long-lived. Prune in dormant season or early spring before new growth begins.

List of pests, diseases, and tolerances: 

Buttonbush is sensitive to drought.

This plant is a cultivar of a species that is native to the Chicago Region according to Swink and Wilhelm’s Plants of the Chicago Region, with updates made according to current research. Cultivars are plants produced in cultivation by selective breeding or via vegetative propagation from wild plants identified to have desirable traits.

Sputnik buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis ‘Bieberich’):  

An 8 to 10 feet high shrub with rounded habit, this cultivar has glossy green leaves turn yellow fall color.

Sugar Shack™ buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis ‘SMCOSS’):

A short form reaching 3 to 4 feet high with reddish tipped foliage and red fruit.


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