Growing Butterfly Bushes in the Home Landscape

An excellent way to attract butterflies to your garden is to plant annuals and perennials that are good nectar sources. Another irresistible attraction for butterflies is the butterfly bush (Buddleia davidii).

Butterfly bushes are medium-sized, woody shrubs. However, they're generally regarded as herbaceous perennials in Iowa because they typically die back to the ground each winter. Fortunately, their performance is not greatly affected by the extensive dieback. Butterfly bushes grow back rapidly after the dead wood is removed in early spring and bloom on the current year's growth. Plants generally have a loose, open, arching habit. By the end of summer, plants are often 5 to 6 feet tall.

The leaves of the butterfly bush are 4 to 10 inches long and 1 to 3 inches wide. Upper leaf surfaces are grayish to bluish green. The undersides of the leaves are grayish white.

In addition to attracting butterflies, the fragrant flowers also lure bees and hummingbirds to the garden. The small, 1/4 to 1/3 inch-wide flowers are borne on dense, 6 to 12 inch-long spikes (panicles). In Iowa, flowering typically begins in early summer and continues until frost. Buddleia davidii cultivars possess a wide range of flower colors including white, yellow, pink, blue, violet, and purple. The flower panicles on some varieties are upright, while others have a graceful, arching form.

Butterfly bushes perform best in moist, well-drained soils in partial to full sun. Avoid wet, poorly drained sites. Also, select sites that provide winter protection. Butterfly bushes planted in open, exposed sites are more likely to be destroyed by harsh, winter weather.

Maintenance practices are fairly simple. Remove spent flower panicles to encourage additional bloom through the summer. In late fall, mound a few inches of soil around the base of each plant. The soil protects the plant crowns and will hopefully prevent their complete destruction. The following spring, remove the soil and prune the plants back to within a few inches of the ground.

Insects and diseases are generally not major problems in Iowa. The biggest threat to the butterfly bush is our harsh winter weather.

There are numerous varieties of butterfly bush available to home gardeners. A listing of some of the widely sold varieties, plus a brief description of each, is provided below.

  • 'African Queen' - dark violet flowers, panicles are 8 inches long.
  • 'Black Knight' - dark purple flowers are produced on 6 to 8 inch-long panicles.
  • 'Charming' - flowers are pink with orange throats, borne on 6 to 8 inch-long panicles.
  • 'Dartmoor' - mauve-purple flowers are borne on large, multi-branched flower heads.
  • 'Dubonnet' - violet-purple flowers.
  • 'Empire Blue' - violet-blue flowers with orange eyes are borne on 6 to 12 inch-long panicles.
  • 'Harlequin' - flowers are reddish purple, green leaves have creamy white margins.
  • 'Honeycomb' - yellow flowers have orange eyes.
  • 'Nanho Blue' - compact variety, mauve-blue flowers are produced on 4 to 6 inch-long panicles.
  • 'Nanho Purple' - compact variety, produces magenta-purple flowers.
  • 'Pink Delight' - true pink flowers are borne on 6 to 12 inch-long panicles, gray-green foliage.
  • 'Royal Red' - flowers are purple-red, panicles are 6 to 12 inches long.

While varieties of Buddleia davidii are the most widely planted butterfly bush in the midwest, the alternate-leaf butterfly bush (Buddleia alternifolia) is another possibility for home landscapes. This species is slightly more hardy than Buddleia davidii. As a result, it usually doesn't die back to the ground during winter. Plants are large, arching shrubs that grow approximately 10 feet tall. Lilac-purple flowers appear in June on the previous year's growth. Butterfly bushes are available in garden centers and mail-order catalogs. Mail-order sources include:

Bluestone Perennials7211 Middle Ridge Road Madison, Ohio 44057 Plant Delights Nursery9241 Sauls Road Raleigh, NC 27603 Wayside Gardens1 Garden Lane Hodges, SC 29695

A colorful brochure, "Common Butterflies of Iowa", is available for $1.00. If your local County Extension office does not have this publication, you may order it from: Extension Distribution Center Printing and Publications Building Iowa State University Ames, IA 50011

This article originally appeared in the February 22, 2002 issue, pp. 17-18.

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