Transplanting a butterfly bush

Tips For Transplanting A Butterfly Bush

We see them from about the middle of summer throughout fall — the arching stems of the butterfly bush plant filled with cone-shaped flower clusters. These beautiful plants not only attract our attention with their eye-catching colors, from purple and pink to white and even orange, but they are notorious for attracting butterflies to the garden as well, hence its name — butterfly bush. While their care if fairly simple, transplanting a butterfly bush requires a bit of know how to ensure its success.

How to Transplant Butterfly Bushes

Transplanting a butterfly bush requires some preparation of the new location. Butterfly bushes prefer moist, well-drained soil in partial to full sun. For best results, amend the soil with compost prior to planting. After transplanting, there is little in the way of maintenance for butterfly bushes’ care.

Transplanting is much the same as for any other shrub or small tree. Gently dig the butterfly bush plant up from its current location. When transplanting a butterfly bush, carefully dig up as much of the root system as possible and move to its new location for replanting. Lift the plant, roots and soil from the ground and move it to the prepared hole in the new location. Backfill the hole around the root ball. Tamp down the soil to make sure that no air pockets are in the soil.

Once in the ground, the plant should be watered frequently until the roots have had time to take hold. When they do, the butterfly bush plant won’t require as much watering, growing to become quite drought-tolerant.

Since it blooms on new growth, you should prune the butterfly bush plant back to the ground during its dormancy in winter. Alternatively, you can wait until early spring. Pruning will help to encourage new growth.

When Can You Transplant Butterfly Bushes?

Butterfly bushes are quite hardy and can transplant easily. Transplanting a butterfly bush is usually accomplished in either spring or fall. Transplant prior to new growth in spring or once its foliage has died down in the fall.

Keep in mind that the region in which you live typically dictates when you can transplant. For instance, spring is a more suitable time for transplanting a butterfly bush in colder regions while in warmer areas of the south, transplanting a butterfly bush is best done in fall.

Butterfly bushes are great plants to have in the garden. Once established, the butterfly bush plant pretty much takes care of itself, other than the occasional watering and pruning. They make exceptional additions to the landscape and attract a variety of butterflies as well, which is also good for pollination.

What are the critical points to consider when transplanting a large perennial like a butterfly bush? These bushes have been in the ground for one year; how late in the year can I transplant them?

Butterfly bush (Buddleia davidii) is grown in Michigan as an herbaceous perennial, since many years we can expect our cold winters to kill back upper parts of the plant’s stem system. The good news is we can usually trust that new leaf buds will emerge low on the stems or from the root system, producing new main stems and flowering buds that will bloom in late summer.

Knowing that the butterfly bush is a marginally hardy plant in Michigan, it is wise to wait to cut back or transplant until spring. In fall after the leaves have fallen, the plant completes its annual cycle by relocating starches (energy that is produced by the leaves and moved down to the root system for storage), which will be used as energy to begin spring growth.

It is helpful to prepare your bushes for winter this fall by keeping them well-watered and supplying them with a slow-release, organic nitrogen fertilizer that will be available in the soil during spring when the roots need it the most.

Butterfly Bush Root System

butterfly gathering nectar image by Robert Ford from

Buddleia spp., or butterfly bush, is a woody perennial that produces long, showy spikes of flowers known to attract butterflies (hence the name) and hummingbirds. The non-cultivated varieties have root systems that can survive many environmental extremes, to the point that they are invasive in some states. Most species of butterfly bush have a root system designed to withstand short periods of drought and an occasional freeze, while absorbing enough nutrients to support the showy masses of blooms.

Root Type/Characteristics

Butterfly bushes have a fibrous root system designed to wind through the nutritious top layer of soil. They do not possess a tap root. While this denies the butterfly bush the anchoring that taproots provide, it also prevents problems with root rot that some deep-rooted plants can have if the long tap sits in water too long. The fibrous root system provides some anchorage, but primarily allows the butterfly bush to get the most from the nutrients and water of the growing season, then produce a plethora of seeds.

Growing Conditions

The roots of the butterfly bush cannot sit in water for prolonged periods. They do not have proper defenses against root fungal diseases, and insufficient oxygen to the roots can cause them to drown. If, on the other hand, the roots are subject to prolonged drought, the leaves and branches wilt. A long drought during the growing season will weaken the plant, leaving it exposed to infestation and disease. So long as the soil is lightly moist and full of nutrients, the roots will support a healthy plant.


Fibrous root systems are easier to transplant than tap roots, which is good news for butterfly bushes. According to experiments conducted by the Royal Horticultural Society, trimming back 15 percent of the outer roots on the root ball of a butterfly bush induced the most new root growth. This, in turn, helps the bush establish faster in the new soil. Saturating the roots in rooting hormone or in a mycorrhiza inoculation also encourages root growth and root support.


Like most shrubs, the butterfly bush can be propagated by cuttings. But this is not practiced as much as growing from seeds, because a single spike from a Buddleia davidii “Potter’s Purple” can produce as much as 40,000 seeds. However, dividing a butterfly bush by separating the mature root ball into four sections provides mature plants faster. Dig up the root ball when the plant is still dormant in early spring. Use sharp garden pruners to cut off the upper stalks. Cut down through the root ball in quarters with a long, sharp knife. You can make more divisions, but the success of the clusters might not be as good.


In the northern states, the butterfly bush may die back to the roots each year. In general, the roots have a good chance of surviving the winter. Adding mulch will trap heat and moisture in the soil. Wet soil doesn’t change temperature as fast as dry soil. This prevents the roots from going into shock from a sudden temperature change. The University of Nebraska Lincoln recommends planting a variety of butterfly bush that has hardier roots, Buddleia alternifolia.

Beautiful Butterfly Bushes

26 Jul

Beautiful Butterfly Bushes

by Farmside in Plant Information

Butterfly Bush (Buddleia davidii) is a beautiful, fast-growing, deciduous shrub with masses of blossoms—long, spiked trusses—that bloom from summer to autumn, making it a favorite among blooming shrubs.

There are some considerations that come with adding Butterfly Bush to your garden:

Butterfly Bush, a native of China, has been classified as an invasive species in most regions in the U.S., meaning its aggressive spreading habit can crowd out native plants essential to our wildlife, birds and butterflies. That said, many new cultivars have been developed that produce sterile seeds, halting the plant’s invasive spreading habit. Opting to grow one of these new cultivars, or to plant the shrub in a container are ways of keeping invasiveness in check.

While Butterfly Bush provides nectar to adult butterflies, it is not a “host” plant – meaning, it does not sustain butterflies throughout their reproductive and entire life cycle. Caterpillars and larvae require host plants in addition to Butterfly Bush to survive, so consider pairing host plants such as Milkweed, Dill and Asters along with your Butterfly Bush to ensure keeping butterflies in your garden.

Butterfly Bushes are very easy to grow, but have certain requirements to ensure that they thrive. This includes full sun (8 hours of bright sunlight), and excellent drainage since their roots are sensitive to rotting if they spend time in wet soil. Note: If you lose a Butterfly Bush after winter, it’s more likely it died from having its roots in the cold, wet soil of spring or fall, rather than cold winter temps, snow or ice.

Proper soil is also essential to Butterfly Bush health. Clay soil can present a problem due to its tendency to remain cold and wet. While clay soils’ ability to retain water usually benefits plants, this doesn’t hold true for Butterfly Bush. You can check how well your soil drains before planting anything by digging a hole about the size of the plant. Fill it to the top with water and come back and check on it every 30 minutes or so. The faster the water disappears, the better your drainage is. If there is still water in the hole after four hours, you have poorly drained soil.

Don’t amend clay soil. This is true for Butterfly Bush and any shrub you’re planting. By amending clay soil with potting soil, or other “good” soils, you create a condition where water gets readily absorbed by these lighter soils, only to then sit and pool once it gets to the clay portion of the ground. Now you have a pool of water in which the shrub’s roots sit until the water can percolate through the more dense soil – a perfect set up for root rot for plants sensitive to these conditions.

If you find you have heavy clay soil, a container might be a better choice for your Butterfly Bush. Be sure to select a container that has several large drainage holes, and can be left outdoors year-round. Fill the container only with a fast-draining, lightweight potting mix.

When planting your Butterfly Bush, plant “high” – meaning, that instead of positioning the plant on ground level like most plantings, keep it a bit above ground by digging a more shallow hole. In this way, you create a small hill that encourages water to drain away from the plant rather than pool around its base.

Mulch can be a bit tricky with Butterfly Bush. While it can help regulate the flow of water during a heavy rain, it also helps retain soil moisture that, in clay, can be a problem for sensitive roots. Mulch your beds, but keep some clearance around the Butterfly Bush, and never mulch up to the main stems.

Prune your Butterfly Bush in the spring, after you see new growth emerge. Resist the urge to prune during fall cleanup since this can leave the bush more susceptible to winter damage. Even in the spring, wait until you see green buds on the stems before you prune. Then, trim just above where the healthy leaf buds have formed.

Butterfly Bush likes to “sleep in” for spring, so don’t despair if it seems like everything else is coming back to life in your garden in spring except for this bush. A good rule of thumb is to wait until Father’s Day (3rd week in June) to decide whether or not your bush is coming back.

Plant your Butterfly Bush in spring to mid-summer, not the fall. This allows the shrub to develop a strong root system before dealing with a cold wet winter. Be careful not to overwater, especially if you have an irrigation system. Signs of overwatering include fewer flowers, weak stems and dieback.

Now let’s look at some great cultivars of Butterfly Bush to consider:

Kaleidoscope Butterfly Bush – The first Buddleia to offer multiple colors on one panicle. Stunning blooms of lavender, pink and tangerine make this option a star attraction in your garden and to hummingbirds and butterflies, too. Blooms from midsummer into fall. Very easy to grow, tolerating heat, poor soil and drought. Shrubs grow to about 6’-8′ tall and wide.

Proven Winners InSpired® Series – Large and colorful, these shrubs are similar to old-fashioned varieties, with very large, showy flowers and a lovely fragrance. These can get quite tall, reaching over 8 feet in height.

Proven Winners Lo & Behold® Series – Overall shape is small and mounded, perfect for flower gardens. ‘Purple Haze’ is the largest of this series with ‘Pink Micro Chip’ the smallest. ‘Blue Chip Jr.’ is the earliest to bloom in the series

Proven Winners “Miss” Series – Medium height (4-5+’ tall), this cultivar has a refined, elegant habit, with intense colors. The flowers of ‘Miss Molly’ are almost a true red and ‘Miss Pearl’ offers blooms so white they seem to glow at night.

Proven Winners Pugster® Series – Just like the beloved pup it’s named after, this variety is short and stocky, with full-sized flowers in saturated hues, including the true-blue bloom of Pugster Blue. The thick stems of this series make it an excellent choice for areas where Butterfly Bush experience a lot of winter dieback.

Proven Winners ‘Summer Skies’ – Large and bold, with eye-catching variegated foliage that makes it look like it’s always kissed by the sun. Stunning purple blooms appear in mid-summer.

Note: Most Butterfly Bushes grow to around 6 feet tall, although some will grow a few feet taller given the right circumstances. Dwarf versions are typically 2- to 3-feet tall and wide, such as Proven Winners’ Lo & Behold series. However, some “dwarf” varieties can reach 3- to 7-feet tall and wide at maturity, such as “Asian Moon.”

Looking for more info on how to attract butterflies and other beneficials to your garden? Contact us at Farmside Landscape & Design for plenty of naturally-inspired ideas!

Shocked Transplant – Butterfly Bush – Knowledgebase Question

While it is important to keep a transplanted shrub watered, you also want to be careful not to overwater it. Check and make sure the soil is moist, and don’t water until it begins to dry out a bit. You goal is moist but not sopping wet.
Usually it is a good idea to trim back a transplanted shrub somewhat, primarily to compensate for any lost roots abut also to allow the plant time to become established in its new location. Since the plant was cut back hard last fall, you have basically already done that.
At this point, you might want to wait and see. In a few weeks it will be clear that some of the stems are not going to make it or are going to be very weak and they can be removed or tipped back as needed to make the plant look a bit better. In the meantime, a root ehancer or a top dressing of compost might be useful, but the most important thing is to kepp an eye on the water when the weather turns hot.
In terms of ongoing care, it is better to wait until late spring to trim back butterfly bushes. The reason for this is that the branches help to protect the base of the plant during the winter and late spring freezes. Annual pruning or trimming usually consists of first removing any winter kill (which may be the entire top of the plant in a bad year), then pruning as needed for shape. An extremely overgrown plant can be cut off very short to rejuvenate it, but this drastic pruning is not necessary most years, especially in cooler climates.

Learn About Butterfly Bushes

Common Disease Problems

Alternaria Leaf Spot: Small, round reddish brown spots with white to gray centers form on the upper surface of the leaves. The lesions may encircle the stems and cause wilt. This disease is worse in warm, wet or very humid weather. Burpee Recommends: Avoid getting water on the foliage. Remove infected plant parts and do not work around wet plants. Provide plenty of air circulation. Contact your Cooperative Extension Service for fungicide recommendations.

Downy Mildew: This fungus causes whitish gray patches on the undersides and eventually both sides of the leaves. Burpee Recommends: Rotate crops with plants in a different family. Avoid overhead watering. Provide adequate air circulation, do not overcrowd plants. Do not work around plants when they are wet.

Root Rots: A number of pathogens cause root rots of seedlings as well as mature roots. Burpee Recommends: Pull up and discard infected plants. Make sure your soil has excellent drainage. Contact your Cooperative Extension Service for recommendations.

Tomato Ringspot Virus: Some butterfly bushes are susceptible to this virus disease which causes an overall decline in the health of the plant, and yellowish, wilting foliage. It is spread by nematodes through the plant roots. Burpee Recommends: Control for the disease by controlling nematodes. Remove and destroy infected plants.

Verticillium Wilt: First seen on leaves in late spring after fruit production has begun. Leaves turn brown along margins and between veins. Leaves will wilt and dry up as the disease progresses. Burpee Recommends: Remove infected plants. Do not plant in areas of infection.

Common Pest and Cultural Problems

Aphids: Greenish, red, black or peach colored sucking insects can spread disease as they feed on the undersides of leaves. They leave a sticky residue on foliage that attracts ants. Burpee Recommends: Introduce or attract natural predators into your garden such as lady beetles and wasps who feed on aphids. You can also wash them off with a strong spray, or use an insecticidal soap.

Caterpillars: Butterfly bushes attract butterflies, which begin their lives as caterpillars. Burpee Recommends: Do not destroy all caterpillars, but to avoid foliage damage hand pick or knock them off with a strong spray of water.

Nematodes: Microscopic worm-like pests that cause swellings (galls) to form on roots. Plants may wilt or appear stunted. Nematodes can spread Tomato Ringspot Virus. Burpee Recommends: Do not plant into infested soil. Grow resistant varieties. Try planting ‘Nema-Gone’ marigolds around your plants.

Slugs: These pests leave large holes in the foliage or eat leaves entirely. They leave a slime trail, feed at night and are mostly a problem in damp weather. Burpee Recommends: Hand pick, at night if possible. You can try attracting the slugs to traps either using cornmeal or beer. For a beer trap, dig a hole in the ground and place a large cup or bowl into the hole; use something that has steep sides so that the slugs can’t crawl back out when they’re finished. Fill the bowl about ¾ of the way full with beer, and let it sit overnight. In the morning, the bowl should be full of drowned slugs that can be dumped out for the birds to eat. For a cornmeal trap, put a tablespoon or two of cornmeal in a jar and put it on its side near the plants. Slugs are attracted to the scent but they cannot digest it and it will kill them. You can also try placing a barrier around your plants of diatomaceous earth or even coffee grounds. They cannot crawl over these.

Spider mites: These tiny spider-like pests are about the size of a grain of pepper. They may be red, black, brown or yellow. They suck on the plant juices removing chlorophyll and injecting toxins which cause white dots on the foliage. There is often webbing visible on the plant. They cause the foliage to turn yellow and become dry and stippled. They multiply quickly and thrive in dry conditions. Burpee Recommends: Spider mites may be controlled with a forceful spray every other day. Try hot pepper wax or insecticidal soap. Check with your Cooperative Extension Service for miticide recommendations.

Transplanting a Butterfly Bush

I don’t know if this has already been answered in the archives, but can you transplant a butterfly bush in the fall, or should I wait till spring.

Hardiness Zone: 6a

Peggy from Chillicothe, OH


In your zone, transplanting can be done in either the spring or the fall. If you decide to transplant it in the fall, wait until the foliage dies back. Although the plant is entering a dormant state above ground, the temperature of the soil will stay warm a while longer and the roots will continue to remain active. This allows the roots enough time to become established, which will get them off to a faster start once warm weather rolls around again in the spring.


For gardeners in colder zones, it’s probably best (and safest) to wait until the spring for transplanting due to the probability of unpredictable fall weather. Plants should be moved before new growth gets started. Butterfly Bushes are pretty tough, so if you are desperate to transplant one in the fall, go for it.


Ellen Brown is an environmental writer and photographer and the owner of Sustainable Media, an environmental media company that specializes in helping businesses and organizations promote eco-friendly products and services. Contact her on the web at

More Answers:

I am in zone 7. In my experience, you can’t kill them. I have dug them up trying to get rid of one and if I leave any piece of the root—it comes back! I have them coming up volunteer everywhere.Cut it back like you normally would-to about 12″-and replant. It should be just fine. (09/10/2006)

By Dodie

My experience has been the same, but call a nursery if you’re not sure.

I grew up in Ohio, and if my memory doesn’t fail me, when I was in the 6th (?) grade, we went to or near Chillicothe on a field trip. I believe to Schoenbrunne Village–not sure of the spelling. That was over 35 years ago, but I still remember how pretty everything was.

Oh well. Good luck on your butterfly bush. (09/11/2006)

By susan

Are your borders looking overgrown and overcrowded? If some of your stalwart shrubs and perennials have outgrown their space or simply aren’t thriving in their current position, it may be time to move them.

The best time to transplant shrubs is while they are dormant, between late autumn and early spring. Choose a day when the ground isn’t frozen or waterlogged.

There’s always a risk when you move plants and the larger the plant, the more risk there is that you’ll lose it. But there are ways to minimise that risk.

1. Make light work of small shrubs

Small herbaceous perennials and compact shrubs are relatively easy to move if you water them thoroughly and then dig them up with as much root as possible, repositioning them somewhere where there’s more room or where conditions are more favourable. Water them in well and keep them well watered during the autumn in the absence of rainfall.

2. Move bigger shrubs after rain

Mature shrubs are harder work to move, but it’s best to do it after a bout of rain.

Get a friend to help you if the shrub is extremely large.

Generally those that move most easily are the ones with fibrous roots – masses of thin roots which remain shallow in the soil.

More problematic to move are those with tap roots, which are much thicker and there are fewer of them. It’s difficult to move these without breaking the roots.

3. Think about where you’ll replant

First, decide where you are going to replant any large shrubs.

Dig a hole slightly bigger than the root ball of soil is going to be and add organic matter to the soil as well as slow-release fertiliser.

4. How to transplant

For trauma-free transplanting of large shrubs, first make a wide circle at least 30cm from the shrub with a spade and dig a deep trench following the circle’s curve.

Use a garden fork to loosen the earth around the ball of the roots, then gently fork the surplus earth from around the roots.

If the stems or branches of the shrub are unwieldy, tie them loosely with garden string so they don’t snap off or get damaged during the excavation.

Once the ball of roots has been loosened, dig your spade under the root ball as far as you can, levering gently as you go around the circle. The aim is to keep as large a root ball attached to the plant as possible.

When you feel the shrub move, tilt it to one side and slide a length of plastic sheeting or sacking underneath the root ball. Tilt the shrub the other way and manoeuvre the sacking so that it comes underneath the whole root ball, then wrap it up and tie it around the trunk securely, to minimise water loss and keep the root ball and soil intact.

5. Replanting in its new home

Unwrap the sacking and carefully place the shrub in its original depth. There should be a distinct soil mark on the shrub, so it’s easy to gauge. Fill the hole with displaced soil, firm in gently with the ball of your foot to get rid of any air pockets and give it a good soaking.

Water regularly until the plant becomes established and mulch with organic matter. Large shrubs may need support for a year or two.

6. Remember what plants are easy or hard to move

Some plants react better to being moved than others. Those which are easier to move include rhododendron and azalea, hydrangea, hebe, fuchsia, Choisya ternata and forsythia.

Peonies don’t really like being relocated and it may take a couple of years before they flower again.

Shrubs which don’t like being transplanted include ceanothus, berberis, holly, eucalyptus, buddleia, cotoneaster, weigela and lilac.

But even if they suffer leaf fall after moving, don’t give up on them because they may come round.

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