Butterfly bush in container

Buddleia Planting Guide

Outdoor Beds

  1. Find a location where the soil drains well. If there are still water puddles 5-6 hours after a hard rain, scout out another site. Or amend the soil with the addition of organic material to raise the level 2″-3″ to improve the drainage. Peat moss, compost, ground bark or decomposed manure all work well and are widely available. Buddleia plants prefer average to fertile soil.
  2. Site your dwarf buddleia where it will receive full sunlight, or light shade in the hottest areas.
  3. Plant so that the soil level in the pot and the ground soil are even. If the buddleia is sited above the level of the surrounding soil it may dry out, if below, it may sit in a puddle and rot.
  4. After planting, water well to settle the soil around the roots. Keep well watered until established; about 1-1.5″ of water per week is a good general rule of thumb.
  5. When in bloom, feel free to snip stems for honey scented bouquets. This will not hurt the plant.
  6. After flowering has finished for the season leave the foliage in place; don’t cut it off. The leaves will gather sunlight and provide nourishment for next year’s show. In late autumn or early spring trim your buddleia lightly to shape, or hard (to within 6″ of the ground) to encourage all new spring growth. For gardeners in warm climates, water your buddleia sparingly in the winter.
  7. Buddleia tend to be late sleepers (think teenage boy), and sprout in the spring after many other plants are well along. Don’t worry, your butterfly plants are tough; they’ll just leaf out a little later than the rest of the garden.

Pots, Barrels, Tubs & Urns

  1. Fill your containers with good quality, well-drained soil. Almost any commercially available potting medium will work fine. Make sure there are adequate drainage holes; buddlea must not sit in waterlogged soil. Feel free to mix your buddleia with other plants that prefer the same light and moisture conditions. Daylilies, hardy geraniums and coreopsis are good partners.
  2. Site your dwarf buddleia where it will receive full sunlight, or light shade in the hottest areas.
  3. Plant so that the soil level in the pot and the ground soil are even.
  4. After planting, water well to settle the soil around the roots. Keep well watered until established; about 1-1.5″ of water per week is a good general rule of thumb.
  5. When in bloom, feel free to snip stems for honey scented bouquets. This will not hurt the plant.
  6. After flowering has finished for the season leave the foliage in place; don’t cut it off. The leaves will gather sunlight and provide nourishment for next year’s show. In late autumn or early spring trim your buddleia lightly to shape, or hard (to within 6″ of the ground) to encourage all new spring growth. For gardeners in warm climates, water your buddleia sparingly in the winter.
  7. Buddleia tend to be late sleepers (think teenage boy), and sprout in the spring after many other plants are well along. Don’t worry, your butterfly plants are tough; they’ll just leaf out a little later than the rest of the garden.

Q. I have little space for a garden so I planted a butterfly bush in a large pot. Any suggestions on how I can save the plant for next spring?

— E. Kaukialo, Chicago

AProtecting the plant’s roots, which are all above ground, must be the primary focus of successfully overwintering your container-grown butterfly bush (buddleja).

After the plant goes dormant in late fall, move the pot to a garage or basement where temperatures remain between 35 and 45 degrees. Since the plant has no leaves, the spot needs only low light. Monitor soil moisture and water occasionally to keep the root ball moist but not wet. Move it back outdoors after the danger of frost is passed.

An alternative method is to construct an insulating platform of polystyrene foam or solid wood and put the pot on the platform outside in a protected area. Slide the pot into a much larger weatherproof pot and stuff the space between them with wood chips or straw. You also can surround the pot with a cylinder of chicken wire stuffed with shredded leaves or other insulating material. Begin to slowly remove winter protection in early April.

Q. What happened to my black-eyed Susans? They looked great this summer but suddenly turned limp after recent rainstorms.

— J. Haether, Northbrook

A. Your drought-tolerant black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia) are exhibiting symptoms consistent with too much water. When soils become supersaturated, roots can rot, unable to exchange oxygen in the soil or absorb life-sustaining moisture.

Postpone working in the garden when soils are very wet to avoid soil compaction. When conditions dry out, remove damaged stems and leaves but don’t compost them.

Q. Can you tell me if it’s possible to have my back yard certified as a nature sanctuary or preserve?

— N. Creely, Des Plaines

A. At least two organizations offer programs for certifying home gardens. To see whether your back yard meets the requirements contact:

* Conservation @ Home (www.theconservationfoundation.org)

* Backyard Wildlife Habitat, (www.nwf.org/backyard)

The goal of Conservation @ Home is to help homeowners protect or create gardens that are environmentally friendly and conserve water. The program promotes planting “mini-nature havens” that feature landscaping with native plants.

The National Wildlife Federation’s program certifies gardens that demonstrate a commitment to wildlife conservation and the environment.

You can learn more about conservation practices from the Natural Resources Conservation Service, part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Tip sheets and a pamphlet are available by calling 888-LANDCARE or see www.nrcs.usda.gov/Feature/backyard.

Write to: Gardening Q&A, Home&Garden, Chicago Tribune, 435 N. Michigan Ave., Chicago, IL 60611-4041.

Butterfly Bush

monarch butterfly on butterfly bush image by Scott Slattery from Fotolia.com

How to Winterize a Butterfly Bush

Prepare your perennials for winter to ensure a vibrant showing in spring. Winterizing butterfly bushes (Buddleia davidii) provides for the plant’s safety and continued health during its dormant phase. Winterizing butterfly bushes requires only a small amount of time, and the effort will pay off when the plants return in the spring with beautiful, fragrant blooms.

Remove any debris and weeds growing around the base of the butterfly bush.

Cut the butterfly bush back to around 4 feet tall, or all the way back to the ground. Hardy perennials, butterfly bush will enter a dormant phase during the winter in most planting zones. The best time for a final pruning of butterfly bush is late fall. If you choose to trim the butterfly bush back to ground level, placing a stake or other type of marker at the site to remind you of its location when spring arrives.

Add mulch around the base of the butterfly bush to keep roots from drying out over the winter. A sun-loving perennial, butterfly bush roots are more prone to rot. Too much mulch on the root system can promote rot so apply only a thin layer of mulch around the plant. Use a variety of natural items for mulch, such as sawdust, leaves, wood chips or grass clippings. Arrange mulch to within 1 to 2 inches of the base of the butterfly bush.

Dispose of any pruned branches and any weeds pulled from around the butterfly bush. Shred them for mulch or throw them onto a compost pile. Break up any large, woody branches before composting.

Why Is My Butterfly Bush Not Blooming?

The butterfly bush grows quickly and needs open space in a sunny location with well-drained soil for best blooming.


The butterfly bush needs at least six hours of sunlight a day. In shady conditions the plant does not get enough sunlight to produce full bloom clusters.


The butterfly bush needs about an inch of water a week in the summer to bloom.


The typical butterfly bush blooms on new growth. When the plant is not heavily pruned, new growth is sparse with few blooms.


According to Clemson University, the butterfly bush benefits from a layer of mulch and moderate fertilization for flowering.


Pinch off spent blooms so the plant puts out blooms on new branch tips.

How to Prune & Divide a Butterfly Bush

colorful butterfly on a butterfly bush image by Scott Slattery from Fotolia.com

Rake back in early spring any leaves that have accumulated around the base of the butterfly bush and any mulch that was applied the previous season.

Cut back all the branches to the ground, using pruning shears or a hand saw. Toss the branches into a compost pile to keep decay away from the base of the tree. Removing all the wood will force the plant to produce new wood and larger, more prolific flower heads.

Plunge a garden fork into the crown of the butterfly bush about 4 inches in from the outer edge, facing outward. Jump on the fork and pull it back to loosen the roots. Lift the section from the crown and set it on the ground close by.

Fill in the hole left by the removal of the division with new soil, tamping it down to prevent drying out of the crown. Take several divisions from very large crowns, leaving at least a 4-inch diameter for the original crown.

Plant the new divisions immediately in a hole as deep as they were previously, in a sunny spot with good drainage. Apply about 1/2 inch of water and wait for new growth to emerge.

How to Care for a Butterfly Bush in Fall

Clip back the stems of the bush to only 4 inches tall if you live in a southern region with mild winters and normally above-freezing temperatures. Make a horizontal cut with your hand pruners.

Cut the entire bush back to the ground if you live in a northern region where the butterfly bush normally dies back completely over the winter and temperatures stay below freezing.

Add mulch around the base of the butterfly bush 2 to 3 inches deep after the first frost to insulate the roots of the plant over the winter months.

Watch for new growth in the spring. Provide an annual treatment of slow-release granule fertilizer when new growth sprouts.

Butterfly Bush Problems

Butterfly bushes are marginally root hardy only to Zone 5. A mound of soil around the crown of the plant may help protect it. The plant should be cut back to within a few inches of the ground in the spring.

Root Rot

Butterfly bushes grow best in full sun and well drained soil. Inadequate drainage can result in root rot caused by Phythium, Phytophthora or Rhizoctonia fungi. Infected plants should be removed. The drainage and air circulation should be improved before replacing infected plants.


Caterpillars and Japanese Beetles eat the leaves and flowers of Butterfly Bushes. Remove by hand or apply an insecticide approved for butterfly plants according to the manufacturer’s directions.

Spider mites can be washed off with a hose or treated with a pesticide approved for butterfly plants at the recommended rate of the manufacturer.

Mineral Conditions

Mineral deficiencies in the soil can cause discolored or distorted foliage on Butterfly Bushes. An excess of minerals can cause leaf tip dieback and discolored leaf edges. Soil should be tested to determine whether fertilizer is needed and how much to apply.

How Many Hours of Sun Does a Butterfly Bush Need?

The butterfly bush tolerates both full sun to partial sun locations in the landscape. Full sun areas receive six or more hours of direct light each day. Partial sun garden sites feature four to six hours of sunlight each day.


The blooms of this shrub appear on new wood. Full sun exposure ensures abundant blooms during the summer growing season. With correct siting of the butterfly bush, mature plants reach up to 8 feet high and wide.


Full sun plants require consistent exposure to sunlight. Monitor surrounding shrubs and trees to ensure that the butterfly bush receives plenty of light. A mature landscape can create pockets of shade as tree canopies expand. Prune tree foliage or move the plant to a sunny location to reap the benefits of this shrub.


Take the time to prune back dying blooms on this shrub. Deadheading rejuvenates the butterfly bush and promotes blooming continually through the summer.

How to Plant Butterfly Weed Seeds

Prepare the growing area. Work the soil to a depth of at least 5 inches and add 1 to 2 inches of compost. Work the compost completely into the soil. Rake the soil smooth.

Plant the seeds 1/4 inch to 1/8 inch deep and water lightly. If you are planting the butterfly seeds in a bed with other flowers, place the seeds toward the back of the bed because the plants can grow as tall as 3 feet.

Fertilize the plants once or twice during the growing season to enhance blooms. Follow the fertilizer package recommendations for the size of your growing area. In successive growing seasons, fertilize the butterfly weeds several weeks before the expected blossoming.

Water butterfly weeds sparingly. These plants only need additional moisture during drought conditions.

How to Make My Butterfly Bush Bloom

Prune the shrub all the way back to the ground in the spring. The butterfly bush produces flowers on new wood and it is beneficial to get rid of old growth.

Make sure the butterfly bush receives full sun. If the shrub receives less than six hours of sunlight, transplant it to a more appropriate place.

Deadhead old blooms. Once the blossoms are spent, snip them back to the closest set of leaves to encourage new growth.

Fertilize your butterfly bush in the spring and fall with an all-purpose fertilizer. Follow the directions on the fertilizer.

How to Trim Down a Butterfly Bush

Trim back the butterfly bush in late winter or early spring while the bush is still dormant. Pruning earlier during the winter may lead to injury from cold temperatures.

Use the pruning shears for smaller branches or the lopper for larger branches and cut back the butterfly bush to between 6 and 12 inches above the soil level.

Discard the stems and branches in a compost bin or in the garbage.

How to Grow Butterfly Weed (Asclepias)

Is Butterfly Weed an Annual or a Perennial?

According to both the New Perennials Club and the Burpee online catalog, butterfly bush is a perennial.

Surprising to most people, butterfly bush has been classified as an invasive species in most U.S. regions, crowding out beneficial native plants essential to wildlife. In warm climates, it becomes more of a noxious weed and spreads ferociously through seed dispersal. Luckily, in cooler climates it’s easy to contain if gardeners deadhead the flowers before it sets volunteering seeds.

And despite the “butterfly” name, be aware that this shrub is not a butterfly “host plant” (it doesn’t support butterfly reproduction and lifecycle.) While butterfly bush does provide copious amounts of nectar to adult butterflies, caterpillars do not feed on this plant.

Above: Butterflies don’t have a monopoly; bees also enjoy the nectar of Buddleia. See more in Take the El to 46th Street and Get Off at the Farm. Photograph by David Ferris.

Given our declining pollinator population, my recommendation is if you already own a butterfly bush, be sure to add native host plants like dill, aster, and milkweed if you want the butterflies to have a complete life cycle in your garden, and use plants that better support your native food web and landscape. “Gardeners who want to support the entire butterfly life cycle and still enjoy brilliant flower clusters should consider native alternatives such as California lilac (Ceanothus), and meadowsweet (Spiraea spp),” writes Justine. Read more in Native Plants: 10 Alternatives to Invasive Garden Invaders.

Cheat Sheet

  • Most varieties of butterfly bush are tall and should be placed in the back of garden beds, and because of the summer fragrance sited near patios, porches, window, and places frequented by visitors.
  • Buddleia is popular in cottage, deer-resistant, drought-tolerant and pollinator-friendly gardens.
  • Butterfly bush flowers come in pink, white, purple, red, and yellow, and make a great cut flower.
  • Buddleia looks lovely next to ornamental grasses and salvias.

Above: Buddleia butterfly bush with monarch butterfly. Photograph by Wht_wolf9653 via Flickr.

Keep It Alive

  • Planting butterfly bushes in full sun is a must for best flower production and growth habit.
  • Butterfly bushes perform best in well-draining soil and are not heavy feeders. Tip: too much fertilitizer encourages leaf growth and not wanted flower production.
  • Butterfly bushes are drought tolerant once established. Those grown in pots will need more water.
  • Prune spent flower spikes to promote new shoots and flower buds.
  • Because they bloom on new wood, in the late winter or early spring prune Buddleia bushes hard to live wood (1 to 2 feet tall) to ensure a compact shape.
  • Butterfly bushes are susceptible to capsid bug, caterpillars, weevils, mullein moth, and spider mites. Buds and young leaves can be disfigured and damaged by a moth larva called a budworm.

See more growing tips in Butterfly Bush: A Field Guide to Planting, Care & Design in our curated guides to Shrubs 101. For more reading, see:

  • Pollinator Gardens: 8 Easy Steps to Design a Landscape with Native Plants
  • Garden Visit: At Home with Winemaker Rosemary Cakebread in St. Helena, CA
  • Container Gardening: Sarah Raven’s 7 Tips for Perfect Flower Pots

growing Butterfly Bush in Container

Ooops! Zone 6 or 7, north of Seattle and near the Salish Sea. The coldest I know of was -5 fahrenheit with wind chill too. We’re getting stronger and stronger wind storms. I don’t want to put in stuff that would blow down. I don’t believe burning bush is invasive here but I’ll check. They sell them at local garden centers. Mine has not spread in my yard. I pulled out butterfly bushes, yellow flag iris, and Autumn Traveler’s Joy clematis when I learned they were invasive. Vinca is only in pots and hasn’t escaped in 10 years. Let me find some photos: The first photo shows the old wood fence (over 20 years old), and a bit of metal fence we could replace it with. The goal is dog-containment for my neighbor, and privacy for both of us, but not "Go Away And Leave Me Alone" kind of privacy, just "you don’t notice if you’re not trying to look" kind of privacy. Yes, that’s Moss Hart, a moss topiary with real antlers. Yes, he’s life-size. Yes, he’s hard to maintain because the squirrels adore him. They burrow and tear off his moss running around him as a jungle-gym, and also eat his antlers. I love him anyway, and enjoy watching the squirrels duke it out with the blue jays over him. This photo shows the other side of the yard from where the fence blew down. But it shows the kind of fence that blew down. It’s time to replace all the wood fence. I’ve been replacing all the lawn with sword ferns, deer ferns, and other local evergreens. I need something taller for privacy. There’s a big old pine tree just off camera to the left. The next two photos are the fence out front when it was brand new, before anything had a chance to grow around it. It’s restored salvage from the 1800s from New York brownstones. I’ve got another 40 feet of it we could use to replace the blown-down fence, but it doesn’t give privacy, except with added greenery. I wanted a fence out front that flirted: "Don’t you wish you could get invited in?" I invite people in as often as possible. If you live near Belliingham, ask for a tour. I’ll pump you for advice! Here’s close-up. No two panels are exactly alike, which I just love, though they are all very similar. We had the sections out front restored. The best we’ll be able to do with the 40 feet that remains will be a few coats of black rustoleum and get it bolted onto powder-coated 2×2 metal posts with some kind of ornamental caps on them. The next owners can pay for their own restoration. The next owners will be after we’re dead and gone. Here’s the front of our house so you can see the style. You can barely see the fence in this one. I let it get kinda overgrown in this shot. The house is a 1905 Folk Victorian.

Buddleia Care Guide: How to Grow Butterfly Bush

Buddleia Care

Buddleia is very easy to grow. In fact, you will often see it growing happily on wasteland or around factories and railway lines where it has seeded itself. It is unfussy about climate and soil type and is susceptible to few diseases.

Light requirements

Buddleia do best in full sun to partial shade. As long as they get a few hours of sun each day they will be fine and flower well.

Water requirements

These plants are drought resistant and, once established, will not need watering unless the weather is very dry. In drought conditions, they should be watered thoroughly once a week. They may need more water during the spring, if there is insufficient rainfall, a this is when they are growing the most. Container grown plants will need watering as they dry out.

Soil requirements

These plants will do well in most soils as long as they are reasonably free draining. They hate sitting in wet soil over winter. They do particularly well on chalky or lime soils.

Fertilizer requirements

These plants do not require fertilising and in fact, feeding them may encourage them to produce foliage at the expense of flowers. Container-grown plants should be fed yearly, in spring.


You should plant your shrub in spring once the worst of the bad weather is over and the soil has begun to warm. Wait until daytime temperatures are around 10 degrees and night time lows are no longer below zero.

Your buddleia should be positioned at the same level in the ground as it was in the pot. Water it well and continue to water regularly until well established unless the weather is wet.

If growing in a container use a loam-based potting compost.


Deadheading your shrub will encourage it to produce more flowers. At the end of its flowering period, it is wise to remove all spent flower heads to prevent them from going to seed and spreading seedlings all over the surrounding area.

Container grown plants should be positioned in a sheltered spot over winter. You may like to wrap the pot in fleece or bubble wrap if you expect very cold conditions. It is also advisable to remove the top couple of centimetres of compost each year and replace with fresh. Large varieties will only survive for a year or two in a pot before they become too large. However, new dwarf varieties are available that are suitable for growing in containers.


If your butterfly bush becomes root bound it will need repotting into a larger container or planting out in the garden. Larger varieties will not thrive for more than a year or two if confined to a pot.

Looks good with

The flowers of this plant have a golden eye which looks good when picked out by other orange flowers. Black-Eyed Susan (Rudbeckia fulgida) is a good choice and butterflies will love this plant, too. The leaves of this shrub also look nice with silver-leaved plants such as nepeta and artemisia.

As part of a butterfly or wildlife garden, buddleias are hard to beat. If you grow one, you will likely see Red Admiral, Peacock, Painted Lady, Brimstone, Comma, Large White, Small Tortoiseshell and Meadow Brown butterflies on a regular basis. Consider planting it among other plants that butterflies love such as red valerian, verbena, sedum and hebe. This will ensure a continuous supply of nectar over the summer months.

Butterflies will enjoy the nectar of buddleias but to provide a good environment for these beauties you should grow other plants that will provide shelter to their caterpillars. Nasturtiums will provide a place for the cabbage white butterfly to lay its eggs. Other great hosts for caterpillars include nettles, lady’s smock, holly, ivy, garlic mustard and buckthorn.

Pruning advice

Buddleias benefit from a regular good prune. Cutting back this shrub will encourage it to stay compact and vigorous. Left alone these plants tend to get woody and straggly with flowers only appearing at the tops of the stems. Pruning will encourage more flowers lower down the shrub.

B. davidii produces flowers on the new growth so can be hard pruned in early spring and cut back either close to the ground or down to a woody framework. Pruning should be done in late spring once the worst winter weather is over. Aim for a short, strong framework of five or so main branches. This will keep its size in check and ensure plenty of flowers.

B. alternifolia needs pruning after flowering in late summer. Cutting this type in spring would result in no flowers the following summer. This type does not require such a hard prune. Simply cut back the stems that have just flowered to either a healthy bud or lower stems that have not flowered.

If your B. alternifolia has become overgrown and straggly it is best to cut it back in stages. In the first year, cut back half of the shrub and repeat the process with the other half the following spring. This will ensure your plant does not get too stressed.

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