Planting a butterfly bush

Butterfly Bushes: Plant Care and Collection of Varieties

It is a delight to watch all types of butterflies sip nectar from the abundant flowers on this aptly named shrub.

About butterfly bushes
Butterfly bush is a large, arching shrub that produces masses of flowers in midsummer to fall. Flower colors include blue, pink, red, violet, yellow, and white, and the shrub grows 5 to 10 feet tall and wide, depending on the variety. Butterfly bushes grow well in shrub or perennial borders, and the fragrant flowers can be used for cutting.

Special features of butterfly bushes
Easy care/low maintenance
Good for cut flowers
Attracts butterflies

Choosing a site to grow butterfly bushes
Select a site with full sun and moist, well-drained soil.

Planting Instructions
Plant in spring or fall, spacing plants 5 to 10 feet apart, depending on the variety. Prepare the garden bed by using a garden fork or tiller to loosen the soil to a depth of 12 to 15 inches, then mix in a 2- to 4-inch layer of compost. Dig a hole twice the diameter of the pot the plant is in. Carefully remove the plant from its container and place it in the hole so the top of the rootball is level with the soil surface. Carefully fill in around the rootball and firm the soil gently. Water thoroughly.

Ongoing Care
Apply a thin layer of compost each spring, followed by a 2- to 4-inch layer of mulch to retain moisture and control weeds. Water plants during the summer if rainfall is less than 1 inch per week. Flowers are produced on new wood, so prune back old growth almost to the ground early each spring before any new growth emerges.

Butterfly Bush Planting: Tips On Caring For Butterfly Bushes

Butterfly bushes (Buddleia davidii) are grown for their long panicles of colorful flowers and their ability to attract butterflies and beneficial insects. They bloom in spring and summer, but the naturally attractive shape of the shrub and evergreen foliage keep the bush interesting, even when it is not in bloom.

These tough plants tolerate a variety of conditions and are hardy in USDA plant hardiness zones 5 through 9. Find out more about butterfly bush planting and care.

Butterfly Bush Planting

Planting a butterfly bush in an optimum location minimizes the time you’ll spend on maintenance. Choose a sunny or partly shaded area where the soil is well-drained. Soil that is constantly wet encourages rot. When planted in good quality garden soil, a butterfly bush rarely needs fertilizer.

Give your butterfly bush plenty of room. The plant tag will tell you the mature size of the cultivar you have chosen. Although butterfly bushes tolerate severe pruning to maintain a smaller size, you can reduce the time you’ll spend pruning by planting it in a location with plenty of room for the plant to develop its natural size and shape. Butterfly bushes grow from 6 to 12 feet tall with a spread of 4 to 15 feet.

NOTE: Butterfly bush is considered an invasive plant in many regions. Check with your local extension office prior to planting to ensure that the plant is permitted in your area.

How to Care for a Butterfly Bush

Butterfly bush care is easy. Water the shrub slowly and deeply during prolonged dry spells so that the soil absorbs the water deep into the root zone.

The plants don’t need fertilization unless grown in poor soil. Fertilize with a 2-inch layer of compost over the root zone or scratch in some general purpose fertilizer if you need to enrich the soil. Cover the root zone with a 2- to 4-inch layer of mulch. This is particularly important in cold climates where the roots need winter protection.

The most labor-intensive part of caring for butterfly bushes is deadheading. In spring and summer, remove the spent flower clusters promptly. Seed pods develop when the flower clusters are left on the plant. When the pods mature and release their seeds, weedy young plants emerge. The seedlings should be removed as soon as possible.

Young shrubs that are cut off at ground level may re-emerge, so remove the roots along with the top growth. Don’t be tempted to transplant the seedlings into other parts of the garden. Butterfly bushes are usually hybrids, and the offspring probably won’t be as attractive as the parent plant.

Problems with Butterfly Bushes

Problems with butterfly bushes include root rot and the occasional caterpillar. Planting the shrub in well-drained soil usually eliminates the chances of root rot. The symptoms are yellowing leaves, and in severe cases, twig or stem dieback.

Any time you grow a plant that attracts butterflies, you can expect caterpillars. In most cases the damage is minimal and you will have to stand close to the shrub to notice it. It’s best to leave the caterpillars alone unless their feeding activity does substantial damage to the shrub.

Japanese beetles sometimes feed on butterfly bushes. Using insecticides to control Japanese beetles is usually ineffective, and more likely to destroy the abundance of beneficial insects attracted to the shrub than the beetles. Use traps and handpick the insects, and treat the lawn for grubs, which are the larval form of Japanese beetles.

Butterfly Bush Pruning – How To Prune A Butterfly Bush

We all know the importance of pruning shrubs and trees. This process not only enhances the appearance of these plants but also fixes damaged areas and keeps them from growing out of control. And while it has been said that improper pruning practices result in weakened or damaged plants, this is not the case with the ever-popular butterfly bush.

Butterfly Bush Pruning

Pruning butterfly bushes is easy. These shrubs are extremely hardy and adaptable. Unlike most pruning guidelines, there is no surefire technique on how to prune a butterfly bush. However, as with most shrubs and trees, it is always a good idea to remove any broken, dead, or diseased limbs by cutting them at the point of origin.

Most people prefer to cut back the entire shrub to within a foot or two from the ground, which actually allows it to become more manageable. Without pruning, the butterfly bush may become a bit unruly.

When to Prune a Butterfly Bush

As with knowing how to prune a butterfly bush, when to prune a butterfly bush is another aspect of pruning for which there are no absolutes. In fact, butterfly bush pruning can take place just about any time of the year. However, certain pruning techniques will help promote more vigorous growth and healthier blooms. Generally, most butterfly bush pruning should take place during the winter months, in warmer climates, while the plant is dormant. However, the butterfly bush can also be pruned in the spring with no ill effects. Just make sure you wait until the threat of frost has passed.

Keep in mind that butterfly bush pruning may require an additional layer of mulch around the bush for insulation, especially in colder climates. In warmer areas, this is not necessary, other than for aesthetic purposes, as the butterfly bush usually remains green.

Those choosing to prune during the spring, or even summer, need not worry too much, as these shrubs can handle stress well and will come back stronger than ever. In fact, butterfly bushes grow quickly and respond well to pruning. New growth and blooms should reappear within weeks of pruning butterfly bushes.

Butterfly Bush Transplant Pruning

If you want to keep the butterfly bush looking its best, including newly transplanted bushes, a simple trimming may be just what the doctor ordered. When trimming a butterfly bush, try cutting back the lateral branches to help train the shrub to grow into a desired shape or keep it within a specific area. This will also help with filling in unsightly areas of the butterfly bush.

Remember, there is no right or wrong way to pruning butterfly bushes. Typically, cutting back the entire plant is the most popular method for those seeking to learn how to prune a butterfly bush. However, trimming a butterfly bush whenever you want is another option. These amazing beauties will respond well regardless of how or when you decide to prune.

The Proven Winners® Ultimate Guide to Butterfly Bush

Butterfly bush are quite easy to grow, but you do need to know a bit about their preferences and requirements to achieve maximum success:

  1. Butterfly bush need full sun. When we say full sun, we mean it – butterfly bush require a minimum of 8 hours of bright sunlight. Even in warm climates, plant them where they get no fewer than 6 hours of sun.
  2. Butterfly bush need perfect drainage. Their roots are sensitive to rotting, and if they spend any amount of time in wet soil, they can be set back or even die. Most of the time, if you lose a butterfly bush after winter, it wasn’t due to low temperatures or snow or ice – it was because the plant sat in cold, wet soil in fall or spring.
  3. Butterfly bush can grow in clay soil, but require a few special accommodations. Because they need good drainage and dislike cold wet conditions, there are a few tips that will increase your success with butterfly bush if you have clay soil:
    • Never amend the soil. Don’t add top soil, potting soil, compost or anything at planting time. Plant directly into your natural soil. This is true for all shrubs, but is even more important with butterfly bush, as amending any soil, and particularly clay soil, can cause drainage problems.
    • Plant “high” – instead of positioning the plant even with the ground level like you would other plants, dig a slightly shallower hole (yep, that means less work!) and position it so that the base of the plant is a bit higher than the ground. This creates a small “hill” that encourages water to drain away from the plant rather than settle around it.
    • Avoid mulching directly around your butterfly bush. Mulch is a great idea for other species of plants, but in clay soil, it can hold too much moisture. Go ahead and mulch your beds, but give your butterfly bush a bit of clearance, and never mulch all the way up to the main stems.
  4. Prune in spring, after the new growth emerges. Many people cut their butterfly bush back in autumn, as part of their fall clean up. But particularly in cold climates, this can leave your butterfly bush more susceptible to damage over winter. Do not prune until you see green buds on the stems. Make your cuts just above where big, healthy leaf buds have formed. It can take several weeks into spring for new growth to show up – be patient and resist the urge to cut them back too early.
  5. But do prune your butterfly bush. Left unpruned, large butterfly bushes can become “second story” plants: their flowers form way up at the top so you can’t enjoy them unless you have a second story window. The warmer your climate, the more you should cut back your butterfly bush each spring. Even dwarf varieties like our Lo & Behold® series still need pruning – you’ll just be cutting back less than you would on a variety that reaches 8’ tall.
  6. Be patient. Butterfly bushes tend to be one of the later plants to leaf out in spring. Even if everything else in your landscape is turning green, that doesn’t mean you’ve lost your butterfly bush. Many people recommend waiting til as late as Father’s Day (the third Sunday in June) to be certain their butterfly bush perished. It can be very surprising to see how quickly a butterfly bush can recover, even if it takes that long to come back! Learn more about this phenomenon in our article, Plants that Push the Snooze Button on Spring.
  7. Don’t overwater. Particularly if you have clay soil, watch watering carefully. If you have an irrigation system, be sure it’s not inundating your butterfly bush. Signs of overwatering include weak stems, fewer flowers, and dieback.
  8. Avoid fall planting. Because butterfly bush may get a bit of winter damage in cold climates, it’s best to give them as long a time as possible to get established before they face the challenges of the cold, wet season. In USDA zones 5 and 6 especially, keep butterfly bush planting time to spring through mid-summer so the plants have ample opportunity to develop a good root system to sustain them through winter.

You’ll find a range of colors, sizes, and habits among our butterfly bushes:

InSpired® series: large and colorful. These are similar to old-fashioned types, but they have very large, showy flowers, good fragrance, and get quite tall (8’/2.4m).

Lo & Behold® series: small and mounded. Perfect for flower gardens. Lo & Behold® ‘Purple Haze’ is the largest of this series; Lo & Behold® ‘Pink Micro Chip’ is the smallest. Lo & Behold® ‘Blue Chip Jr.’ is the earliest to bloom of the series.

“Miss” series: medium height (4-5’/1.2-1.5m tall), refined, elegant habit, intense colors. The flowers of ‘Miss Molly’ are as close to red as you’ll find in a butterfly bush. ‘Miss Pearl’ offers pure white blooms that look especially magical at night.

Pugster® series short and stocky, with full-sized flowers in saturated colors. The thick stems of our newest series makes these an excellent choice for areas where butterfly bush experience a lot of winter dieback. Pugster Blue® is especially exciting, with its true-blue blooms.

‘Summer Skies’: large and bold. The splashy variegated foliage of this variety makes it eye-catching well before its purple blooms appear in mid-summer.

Butterfly bush FAQ:

I heard butterfly bush is invasive. Is this true?

Butterfly bush has become invasive in some areas, and is on invasive plant watchlists or even banned in some states. This is why we work with renown plant breeder Dr. Dennis Werner of North Carolina State University to introduce seedless and non-invasive varieties, like the Lo & Behold® series and the “Miss” varieties. These plants have been approved for sale in Oregon, where others are banned. However, in these states, they are sold under the name “summer lilac” instead of “butterfly bush” to clarify that they have been approved by their respective departments of agriculture.

So is butterfly bush the same thing as butterfly weed?

No. When most people say “butterfly weed,” they are referring to one of several species of milkweed (Asclepias sp.), an herbaceous plant. Butterfly bush (Buddleia sp.) is a woody plant (shrub).

I heard butterfly bush is bad for butterflies. Is this true?

Butterfly bush attracts butterflies because its flowers are high in nectar. However, this nectar only sustains the butterflies themselves – it does not provide crucial food sources for caterpillars (which are the larval or “baby” stage of a butterfly’s life cycle). If you want to create a truly butterfly-friendly garden, don’t just plant a butterfly bush – plant a wide variety of trees, shrubs, perennials, and annuals that bloom at different times to provide an ongoing, diverse buffet for the babies and adults alike. Be sure to include plenty of plants that are native to your area – contact your local cooperative extension office for specific recommendations.

Do I need to cut the seeds off my butterfly bush?

All of our butterfly bush will bloom all summer long without deadheading (the process of removing seed heads). To eliminate the possibility of butterfly bush spreading, you can cut off and dispose of the seedheads left on the plant in autumn – as long as you aren’t doing any major pruning into the plant, it’s perfectly fine to do this.

Can I cut my butterfly bush blooms to use in flower arrangements?

Yes, but unfortunately, they don’t hold up very well in a vase. If you want to try, cut them early in the morning and place the stems in water immediately after cutting.

Can I grow butterfly bush in a container?

Yes! Butterfly bush will thrive in containers. Be sure to select a container that has several large drainage holes, and fill the container only with a fast-draining, light-weight potting mix. The container you select should be made out of a weather-proof material that can be left outdoors year-round.

Learn more in our Shrubs in Containers article

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Love the butterfly bush? Try this cute, smaller cousin | San Luis Obispo Tribune

The dwarf butterfly bush serves as a magnet for bees, butterflies and hummingbirds with its sweet nectar and dense, spike-like lavender flowers. Kathy Keatley Garvey UC Davis

Dwarf butterfly bush

Buddleia davidii

Planting areas: Zones 6, 7, 8 and 9

Size: 3 to 5 feet tall, 3 to 4 feet wide

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Bloom season: Early summer to late fall

Exposure: Full sun to partial shade

Pruning needs: Remove spent flowers to prolong bloom. Cut back canes in late winter to promote fuller new spring growth.

Water needs: Medium to low; drought tolerant once established.

Snapshot: As its name indicates, the dwarf butterfly bush is a miniature version of its much larger cousins, which can tower 10 to 12 feet.

Like its full-sized counterpart, this compact perennial not only fits beautifully into small suburban landscapes but also serves as a magnet for bees, butterflies and hummingbirds. They’re attracted to the dwarf butterfly bush’s sweet nectar and dense, spike-like lavender flowers.

Although commonly called “butterfly bush,” buddleia varieties should not be confused with milkweed and butterfly weed, which are both members of the asclepias family. Milkweeds are the only plants that monarch butterfly larvae can eat, and therefore are critical to the species’ survival.

Got a gardening question?

In San Luis Obispo, call 805-781-5939; Arroyo Grande, 805-473-7190, and Templeton, 805-434-4105. Visit us at or email us at [email protected] Follow us on Instagram at slo_mgs and like us on Facebook. Informative garden workshops are held the third Saturday of every month, 10 a.m. to noon at 2156 Sierra Way in San Luis Obispo. Garden docents are available after the workshop until 1 p.m. To request a tour of the garden, call 805-781-5939.

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