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Butterfly Bush Basics

By: Stephanie Petersen
With colorful, fragrant flowers, butterfly bush delights gardeners & pollinators! Learn more about this flowering shrub.

If you want a way to guarantee that butterflies, moths and hummingbirds will come to your garden from midsummer to frost, plant a butterfly bush (Buddleja spp. and hybrids). Gardeners have an affinity for them too — it’s easy to be enamored by a shrub flush with bright, honey-scented flowers and fluttering butterflies. On top of these great qualities, it’s deer-resistant! Let's dive into the lovable qualities of butterfly bush, varieties that will work for you and take a look at special growing techniques to help you grow your best butterfly bush.

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Grow a butterfly bush in your garden

This fast-growing flowering shrub is a popular fixture in summer gardens everywhere. Plant breeders have been working on new colors, more flowers and dwarf habits that fit in more situations — even containers. One caveat: It is considered invasive in a few states, but seedless, or sterile, cultivars won’t spread.

But there are many great newer cultivars, too. Here are three characteristics to consider when you’re choosing the right one for your garden.

'Miss Ruby' butterfly bush: ‘Miss Ruby’ butterfly bush has bright fuchsia flowers and has a slightly more compact habit than the typical butterfly bush.

1. Find fantastic flowers

Of course you’ll be interested in flower color, and most butterfly bushes come in shades of purple. But there are a lot of options for pink, red-violet or white flowers, too.

Pink flowers

If you're looking for lots of flowers, try bright fuchsia ‘Miss Ruby’ (shown above), with a slightly more compact habit than the typical butterfly bush, at 4 to 5 feet tall and 3 to 4 feet wide. Or try ‘Pink Delight’, which also has large flowers, and robust plants grow 3 to 10 feet tall and wide.

Blue flowers

‘Ellen’s Blue’ and ‘Glasnevin Hybrid’ are two good blue-flowering cultivars. They both have silvery-green leaves and grow 4 to 6 feet tall and 4 feet wide.

White flowers

‘White Ball’ is a nice alternative if you’d like to plant a hydrangea, but can’t because your site is in full sun and has dry soil. It has extra large flowers that are 15 to 18 inches long, held above the dark green foliage on compact plants that grow 4 to 6 feet tall and 4 feet wide. Another reliable choice with white flowers is ‘White Profusion’. It grows about a foot taller and wider than ‘White Ball’ but has a similar display of dark green leaves and long clear white flowers.

Lo-and-behold-Blue-Chip-Seeting-Proven-Winners: Compact cultivars like Lo & Behold ‘Blue Chip’ you see here can create a formal, yet airy, flowery edge along a brick path.

2: Choose from a variety of sizes

Butterfly bush usually hovers around 5 to 8 feet tall, making it a fantastic statement shrub in the back of the border. But one of the most exciting things to happen to butterfly bush is that it keeps getting smaller. Lo & Behold™ ‘Blue Chip’ in the photo above grows 20 inches tall and wide. It’s one in a series of seedless dwarf cultivars that all stay under 3 feet tall.

3: Don't forget the valuable foliage

If you're looking to really boost the color, try a butterfly bush with variegated foliage. ‘Harlequin’ is a colorful favorite, with its ivory and green leaves and red-purple flowers with orange eyes. ‘Summer Skies’ has yellow and white variegated leaves and light lavender flowers. For a striking contrast, try ‘Santana’ with yellow and green leaves and violet-red blooms. Plant them in full sun to ensure that the variegation stays in the leaves.

Now that you have plenty of options for your shopping list, let's cover some of the best ways to design with butterfly bush and some tips for getting them to look their best.

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How to use butterfly bush in the garden

As you can guess, butterfly bush is a staple in butterfly garden designs — if you didn’t have butterflies before you planted it, you will after. Tall varieties make a great fast-growing privacy screen or hedge at the back of the border. Space plants 6 to 12 inches closer than recommended on the tag to create a fuller look.

No matter where you plant butterfly bush, be sure that it’s where you can delight in the show of fluttering friends and the sweet fragrance that might waft your way. Enjoy them blooming near a window or a patio. Combine them with yarrow, ornamental grasses, and perennial salvia, which thrive in similar conditions.

'Black Knight' butterfly bush in a garden border: Bridge the space between tall trees and perennial borders with 8-ft.-tall ‘Black Knight’ butterfly bush.

Butterfly bush in the back of the border

'Black Knight' above is an old favorite that really brought this shrub to the forefront with its low-maintenance demands and gorgeous deep purple flowers with orange eyes. Growing 6 to 8 feet tall, it’s a go-to plant when you need a back-of-the-border bloomer.

Butterfly bush in a small space

Compact cultivars work in the front of the border. Try them in a mixed perennial bed, where they create a formal, yet airy, flowery edge along a brick path. Since they are tolerant of those super sunny areas a lot of other plants can’t take, try planting several along a hot driveway.

English Butterfly Peacock butterfly bush used in a container planting: English Butterfly Peacock is a small-sized cultivar perfect for a container.

Butterfly bush in a container

These shrubs actually make great thrillers in container designs. Use a pot that’s at least 24 inches in diameter and deep enough to hold plenty of soil and plant smaller-sized cultivars, keeping in mind that they probably won’t grow to full-size in a container. They will require more watering, so check plants regularly to make sure they don’t dry out.

How to care for butterfly bush

Low-maintenance butterfly bush only needs a few things to grow its best: Well-drained soil and a place in full sun. If you have clay, amend the planting site with compost first, to add air pockets that will help water drain more quickly. In part shade, butterfly bush grows leggy, without as many flowers — plants thrive in hot, sunny, dry areas.

Pruning tips

  • If you live where winter temps fall below 0 degrees F, butterfly bush will die back to the ground. Simply cut off any remaining dead growth in spring.
  • Where winters are mild, prune all branches back to 2 or 3 in. from the ground in early spring to keep new growth even and compact.
  • Avoid cutting plants back in the fall, as it leaves the crown of the plant exposed to harsh wind and damage from the freeze-thaw cycle.

Butterfly bush cultivars to try

Pugster® Amethyst butterfly bush (Buddleja hybrid)

Even the smallest garden has room for this dwarf butterfly bush. Full-sized flowers have thick stems, which help it survive winter better than other dwarf cultivars.

Type Shrub Blooms Fragrant lavender flowers in summer to fall Light Full sun Size 18 to 24 in. tall and wide Hardines Cold hardy in USDA zones 5 to 9

‘Honeycomb’ butterfly bush (Buddleja × weyeriana)

‘Honeycomb’ is one of the last varieties to open their clusters of colorful flowers in mid summer. The flower shape is slightly different, too, with small clusters of flowers instead of the typical sprays.

Type Shrub Blooms Yellow with an orange eye in midsummer to frost Light Full sun Size 5 to 12 feet tall, 4 to 8 feet wide Hardiness Zone 5 to 9

‘White Profusion’ butterfly bush (Buddleja hybrid)

‘White Profusion’ has a pleasing display of dark green leaves with frosty undersides and long clear white flowers.

Type Shrub Blooms Long white sprays in midsummer to frost Light Full sun Size 5 to 6 feet tall and wide Hardiness Zone 5 to 9

‘Ellen’s Blue’ butterfly bush (Buddleja davidii)

‘Ellen’s Blue’ is a good blue-flowering cultivar with silvery-green leaves.

Type Shrub Blooms Blue-purple summer to frost Light Full sun Size 4 to 6 feet tall and wide Hardiness Zone 5 to 9

‘Black Knight’ butterfly bush (Buddleja davidii)

This is a classic cultivar with gorgeous deep purple flowers and a large stature.

Type Shrub Blooms Fragrant dark-purple flowers in mid- to late summer; gray-green foliage Light Full sun Soil Average, well-drained Size 6 to 8 ft. tall, 3 to 5 ft. wide Hardiness Cold hardy in USDA zones 5 to 9

‘Glass Slippers’ butterfly bush (Buddleja hybrid)

We grow ‘Glass Slippers’ in our test garden and it’s covered in butterflies from summer to fall. This variety can grow up to 4 feet tall and 5 feet wide. Be patient in spring: Butterfly bush is slow to emerge.

Type Shrub Blooms Periwinkle sprays from summer to frost Light Full sun Soil Well-drained Size 4 to 5 feet tall and wide Hardiness Cold hardy in USDA zones 5 to 9

Pugster® Amethyst butterfly bush (Buddleja hybrid)

Even the smallest garden has room for this dwarf butterfly bush. Full-sized flowers have thick stems, which help it survive winter better than other dwarf cultivars.

Type Shrub Blooms Fragrant lavender flowers in summer to fall Light Full sun Size 18 to 24 in. tall and wide Hardines Cold hardy in USDA zones 5 to 9

‘Ellen’s Blue’ butterfly bush (Buddleja davidii)

‘Ellen’s Blue’ is a good blue-flowering cultivar with silvery-green leaves.

Type Shrub Blooms Blue-purple summer to frost Light Full sun Size 4 to 6 feet tall and wide Hardiness Zone 5 to 9

‘Honeycomb’ butterfly bush (Buddleja × weyeriana)

‘Honeycomb’ is one of the last varieties to open their clusters of colorful flowers in mid summer. The flower shape is slightly different, too, with small clusters of flowers instead of the typical sprays.

Type Shrub Blooms Yellow with an orange eye in midsummer to frost Light Full sun Size 5 to 12 feet tall, 4 to 8 feet wide Hardiness Zone 5 to 9

‘Black Knight’ butterfly bush (Buddleja davidii)

This is a classic cultivar with gorgeous deep purple flowers and a large stature.

Type Shrub Blooms Fragrant dark-purple flowers in mid- to late summer; gray-green foliage Light Full sun Soil Average, well-drained Size 6 to 8 ft. tall, 3 to 5 ft. wide Hardiness Cold hardy in USDA zones 5 to 9

‘White Profusion’ butterfly bush (Buddleja hybrid)

‘White Profusion’ has a pleasing display of dark green leaves with frosty undersides and long clear white flowers.

Type Shrub Blooms Long white sprays in midsummer to frost Light Full sun Size 5 to 6 feet tall and wide Hardiness Zone 5 to 9

‘Glass Slippers’ butterfly bush (Buddleja hybrid)

We grow ‘Glass Slippers’ in our test garden and it’s covered in butterflies from summer to fall. This variety can grow up to 4 feet tall and 5 feet wide. Be patient in spring: Butterfly bush is slow to emerge.

Type Shrub Blooms Periwinkle sprays from summer to frost Light Full sun Soil Well-drained Size 4 to 5 feet tall and wide Hardiness Cold hardy in USDA zones 5 to 9

Published: April 24, 2020
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