In warmer climates, butterfly bush (Buddleia davidii) is a deciduous shrub with an arching habit and impressive flowers. In colder regions, it grows more like a perennial, dying back to the root crown each winter and reappearing in spring. With rather coarse leaves and striking flower spikes that attract pollinators, butterfly bush now comes in a wide range of colors, thanks to the magic of cultivar developers, Varieties are available to suit many different gardening preferences— some can grow up to 12 feet tall, while others are relatively small. Some varieties produce large clusters of flowers while others produce flowering spikes. Long, narrow sage green leaves grow along slim, arching stems. The bushes require little attention, so even weekend gardeners can enjoy their lovely blooms and resident butterflies. But some wariness is warranted, as this plant self-seeds so readily that it is considered a noxious weed in some regions.
Butterfly bush is usually planted from potted nursery starts or planted from seeds in the spring. It is a very fast-growing plant that usually reaches its full mature size within a single growing season.
|Common Name||Butterfly bush|
|Botanical Name||Buddleja davidii|
|Plant Type||Shrub, perennial|
|Mature Size||3–12 ft. tall, 3-8-ft. wide|
|Soil Type||Moist, well-drained soil|
|Soil pH||Acidic, neutral|
|Flower Color||Purple, pink, blue, white, yellow|
|Hardiness Zones||5–9 (USDA)|
Butterfly Bush Care
The popularity of butterfly bushes is no surprise as they're beautiful, easy to grow, and require minimal day-to-day care. Even major storms have little effect on these hardy shrubs. They thrive in harsh environments, such as polluted urban settings. They're also resistant to insect pests, drought, and stress.
Butterfly bush grows well in average, medium moisture, well-drained soil in a full sun location. If planting more than one, space them well apart—5 to 6 feet. Blend in peat moss before planting if the soil is dense and poorly draining.
In colder climates, butterfly bush often dies back to the ground in winter and is treated like a herbaceous perennial. In warm climates, they can be pruned back in the same way to keep them under control and stimulate better blooming. Be wary of this plant's tendency to aggressively spread through self-seeding. Removing the spent flower clusters before they can scatter seeds will help control the plant.
In certain areas of the U.S, butterfly bush is categorized as an invasive plant—defined as a non-native species that is pervasive enough to push out native plants. As a result, many plant experts caution against planting butterfly bush under any circumstance. If you are unsure about this plant's status in your area, check with your local agricultural extension office before adding it to your landscape. And if you do choose to grow butterfly bush, give preference to varieties that are bred to be sterile or seedless.
Butterfly bush needs full sun (at least six hours daily) and will become weedy and sparse if grown in shady conditions.
This plant will thrive in any average, well-drained soil that gets an average amount of moisture. It prefers a soil pH from 6.0 to 7.0, slightly acidic to neutral.
This plant likes a medium-moisture environment and will do poorly at either extreme—intolerant of drought or boggy locations that don't drain well. They will thrive on 1/2 inch of water by rain or irrigation each week.
Temperature and Humidity
Butterfly bush thrives throughout its hardiness zone range (zones 5 to 9), but expect it to die back to ground level in winter in zones 5 and 6.
This plant needs no fertilizer, other than a thin layer of compost spread over the root zone each spring.
Types of Butterfly Bush
Butterfly bushes were first brought to England from Asia in 1774 by the botanist Adam Buddle (for whom the plant was named). New natural varieties are still being discovered in remote areas of China and the Himalayas. But most garden plants are named varieties developed by horticulturalists, with names that hint at their color variations: 'Adonis Blue', 'Bicolor', 'Buzz Violet Blue', 'Pink Delight', 'Royal Red', 'White Profusion', 'Black Night', etc.
However, given the plant's reputation for invasiveness, responsible gardeners are advised to choose one of the newer non-seeding varieties. For example, here is a list of seedless varieties approved for sale in Oregon, one of several states where standard butterfly bush is outlawed as a dangerous invasive:
- Buddleia 'Asian Moon'
- Buddleia 'Blue Chip'
- Buddleia 'Blue Chip Jr.'
- Buddleia 'Ice Chip' (Formerly 'White Icing')
- Buddleia 'Inspired Pink'
- Buddleia 'Pink Micro Chip'
- Buddleia 'Purple Haze'
- FLUTTERBY GRANDÉ™ Blueberry Cobbler Nectar Bush
- FLUTTERBY GRANDÉ™ Peach Cobbler Nectar Bush
- FLUTTERBY GRANDÉ™ Sweet Marmalade Nectar Bush
- FLUTTERBY GRANDÉ™ Tangerine Dream Nectar Bush
- FLUTTERBY GRANDÉ™ Vanilla Nectar Bush
- FLUTTERBY PETITE™ Snow White Nectar Bush
- FLUTTERBY™ Pink Nectar Bush
It is likely that many more seedless varieties will be developed in the future.
The spent flower spikes of butterfly bush should be removed promptly after flowering to stimulate continued blooming right up to frost and reduce the chances of self-seeding. This plant grows rapidly, and pruning it all the way to ground level each spring stimulates vigorous growth and profuse flowering. This is often a good idea even in warmer regions where the plant grows as an evergreen shrub.
Propagating Butterfly Bush
It's rare that you would seek to propagate this bush, since it spreads so readily, but if you do, collecting the seeds heads will give you plenty of seeds to replant wherever you wish (see below).
But propagation by seed is not possible if you have wisely chosen a sterile, seedless variety of butterfly bush for your garden. To propagate one of these non-patented varieties, rooting branch cuttings is the best approach. Here's how to do it:
- In summer, use sharp pruners to cut a 4- to 6-inch segment from a healthy branch tip. Make the cut just below a healthy bud. Remove the leaves from the bottom one-third of the cutting.
- Dip the cutting in rooting hormone powder, then plant it in a small pot containing a mixture of peat moss and perlite. Moisten the potting mix.
- Put the plant in a plastic bag to hold in moisture, and set the pot in a bright location, but out of direct sunlight.
- In three to six weeks, roots should develop (tug lightly on the stem; if you feel resistance, roots are present). At this time, you can transplant the cutting into a larger container or transplant it into the garden.
How to Grow Butterfly Bush From Seed
Butterfly bush self-seeds so readily that "how to do it" is almost laughably obvious. It's an easy matter to transplant the volunteer seedlings that sprout up around a parent plant. You can also harvest seeds from dried flower heads and store them to plant in the desired location the following spring.
More likely, though, you'll be planting purchased seeds for one of the sterile cultivars now available. In that case, direct sowing the seeds in the desired location will result in germination and sprouting within a few days, and fully mature plants by the end of the first growing season.
Potting and Repotting Butterfly Bush
Most butterfly bush varieties are too large to make good container plants, but there are several dwarf varieties, such as the Lo and Behold and Pugster series that are only about 2 feet tall and make decent container plants. Use a large pot (any material) that is at least twice as deep as the nursery container, and fill it with standard potting mix blended with some compost.
In cold winter zones, the potted butterfly bush should be cut down to soil level for the winter and moved into a sheltered location to protect the roots for the winter.
These are sturdy, durable plants that don't need much in the way of winter protection. Even if the plants die back to the ground due to cold, they will usually assume the role of herbaceous perennial, sprouting up again in the spring.
It's a good idea to cut off flower heads in the fall to prevent self-seeding. In regions where the plant is borderline hardy, a 2- to 3-inch layer of mulch may help protect the roots over the winter.
Common Pests & Plant Diseases
There are no serious pest or disease problems with butterfly bush, although spider mites can be an issue and nematodes can be a problem in the South.
Spider mites cause small spots to appear on leaves, gradually causing leaves to turn gray or bronze. Silky webs may also appear on the leaves. Left alone, predatory insects often arrive to keep spider mites in check. Or, you can use horticultural oils or pyrethrin-based insecticides to control them, though be aware that these may also kill the beneficial insects.
Nematodes cause yellow patch-like damage to leaves. There is no effective treatment, so affected plants will need to be removed and destroyed.
How to Get Butterfly Bush to Bloom
In moderately good growing conditions (plenty of sun, moist but well-draining soil) butterfly bush will display plenty of flowers from early summer right up to fall. When plants don't bloom, it's because of one of these conditions:
- Not enough sun. These are sun-loving plants that will not bloom if they don't get at least six hours of daily sun.
- Too much or too little water. Butterfly bush likes plenty of moisture, but not sogginess. Excessive moisture can cause root rot which prevents flower buds from forming. And drought can also cause the plant to conserve energy by withholding flowers.
- Summer is too cool. Butterfly bush thrives in temperatures 75 degrees Fahrenheit or above, and if your summer has been unseasonably cool, the plants may withhold flowers for that year.
- Planted too deeply. If potted nursery plants are planted too deeply, they may not bloom in their first year, though they usually self-correct by the following season. Plant nursery specimens at the same height they were growing in their containers.
- Beetle or grasshopper damage. An unusually large infestation of feeding beetles or grasshoppers can devour the flower buds. The plants generally recover for the next year.
Common Problems With Butterfly Bush
The most common complaint with butterfly bush is, without question, its tendency to spread aggressively, even uncontrollably. For many people, the best answer is to remove the plant and replace it with one of the seedless, sterile varieties that are increasingly available.
You can minimize the rampant spread by routinely clipping off flower heads before they dry out and scatter seeds, by cutting down all stems at the end of each growing season, and by diligently plucking out the volunteer seedlings as you spot them.
How long does butterfly bush live?
Buddleia davidii is not a long-lived species; a 20-year-old specimen is unusually old, and 10 years is a more typical lifespan.
How should I use butterfly bush?
Most varieties are quite large with coarse foliage, so it's typical to plant butterfly bush near the back of mixed borders, where the tall flower spikes can be seen but where the foliage is disguised by foreground plants. It does not make a very good specimen shrub, but works well when mixed with other flowers in butterfly gardens or cottage gardens.
What is the difference between butterfly bush and butterfly weed?
Although the common names are similar, these are entirely different plant species—though both have a well-deserved reputation for being attractive to butterflies and other pollinators.
Butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa) is usually a shorter plant, rarely growing more than 3 feet tall, and it is much more cold-hardy than butterfly bush, suitable to zone 3. The orange or yellow flowers form clusters rather than spikes. Butterfly weed is a common roadside wildflower, but there are also cultivars developed for landscape use. Native to North America, butterfly weed is not considered a foreign invasive, so it is a good choice for native plant enthusiasts.
Is there a native North American Buddleia species I can grow?
No. All Buddleia species are foreigners, mostly from mountainous regions of China. Various native milkweeds are better choices for native plant enthusiasts.
Butterfly Bush. Clemson Cooperative Extension.
- Triolo, Victoria. The Butterfly Bush: A Deciduous Shrub Cutting. Penn State Plant Propagation Reports.
Wyman, Donald. Wyman's Gardening Encyclopedia.
Scout for Twospotted Spider Mites. North Carolina State Extension
- Buddleia - Foliar nematode (Aphelenchoides species). University of Massachusetts Extension.