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Butterfly Bushes

By Ray Allen, Founder of

To a butterfly, it's not just another pretty flower. It's a butterfly buffet.

Butterfly Bush (Buddleia) is a shrub-like plant that looks sort of like a compact lilac, grows quickly and blooms in mid-summer. But the name tells you all about it: Butterflies just can't resist the flowers, and flock to the plants when they're in bloom.

Purple Butterfly Bush with Butterfly Visitors

The magic of Buddleia, and why butterflies can't resist it

It's been a sensation in American gardens for years, and no wonder. Butterfly bush is easy to grow, blooms profusely, and has that magical quality: Butterflies can't resist it.

Here's why: It's not just the pretty flowers that attract the butterflies, like so many other bright blooms. Buddleias emit a special honey-scented fragrance that lures butterflies like a moth to a flame, and then once there, they find the flowers super-rich in nectar.

A butterfly bush in the garden will often be seen with a mass of butterflies on the flowers, especially during hot sunny afternoons. Buddleiasattract other insects too, like moths, and the reddish ones strongly attract hummingbirds. So it's more than a name; it's actually a botanical phenomenon.

Easy and quick to grow

Butterfly bushes are popular and hardy from Zone 5 south to Zone 9. In the colder zones, they die to the ground each year like a perennial plants, but in more southern regions, they are somewhat evergreen. In the warmer states, butterfly bushes often grow to 10 or 12 ft. high, and require pruning to keep them shapely. They're happy in almost any soil and prefer moist ground, but will also do well in dryer spots. They need plenty of sun, but will be fine with some shade in the warmer areas. All this tells you that this plant is a tough one, and should be easy to grow in your garden. A well-grown specimen can be a magnificent "fountain" of flowers, since the stems with heavy flower clusters tend to arch in all directions.

Butterfly Bush Bicolor

The colors and named varieties

You'll find pink, white, blue, and some very beautiful new bi-colors. Buddleia "Bicolor" created a sensation when it burst on the scene. It is one of the first with bi-colored blooms, often developing long clusters that range from bluish to raspberry to bright orange as you look from the tip to the base of the flower spike.

Pink Butterfly Bush
Purple Butterfly Bush
White Butterfly Bush

The more standard varieties include deep blue/purple "Black Night" and "Pink Delight" shown above.

Some botanists think the basic white Butterfly Bush has the most potent lure for insects. That's "White Profusion" with it's very heavy flowerheads shown on the right.

A Butterfly Bush with pink, blue and white flowers on the same plant? Hmmm.

If you've ever heard about this magical butterfly bush, I think I know why. During the 1990's a very well know perennial nursery, which shall remain nameless, began selling "a butterfly bush with three colors on the same plant." The offer was such a successful bonanza for them, they repeated it over and over in ad after ad. And hundreds of thousands of gardeners bought. Well, what they got was really three small seedlings of three different plants grouped into one pot—one white, one blue and one pink. It all worked well, since butterfly bushes grow so easily and quickly, it really did look like one leafy bush as it grew. But once the "bush" was up and blooming with all the colors, if you looked closely near the ground, you'd see three little trunks, not just one. The effect was definitely one handsome bush with blooms in all three colors, but it was simply three different bushes planted very close together. 

New Butterfly Bushes to come? The genus Buddleia (or Buddleja to be correct) is a group of several wild species that are cultivated and hybridized for the plants we enjoy. Most are from China, but some have been imported from South America as well. The most popular is B. davidii, which was brought into England's Kew Gardens in the 1880's, and is the parent of all the well-known Butterfly Bushes.  However, according to "The Butterfly Website", some naturalists are still seeking out unknown species of Buddleia on the slopes of the Himalayas.

Don't confuse the Butterfly Bush with Milkweed

Some people mistakenly call another famous butterfly attracting plant "butterfly bush", but that's incorrect. "Butterfly Weed" is the common name of our famous flame-orange milkweed native wildflower, Asclepias tuberosa. It grows from Canada to Florida, and when happy in dry soils and full sun, can be a sensation of beauty. Unlike the more common milkweed, Butterfly Weed forms a multi-branched clump only about 2 feet tall. It's one of the few native wildflowers that are so beautiful, they've been taken into the garden with no "improvements." The only changes I've ever seen in garden catalogs for Butterfly Weed is the name. Some retailers simply can't bring themselves to use the dreaded "W" word in their catalogs. Sometimes butterfly weed is sold as "orange glory flower." I've also seen "orange butterfly flower". But any experienced plant person in the USA knows it's plain old, super-beautifulButterfly Weed.

Orange Butterfly Weed or Milkweed is another Pollinator Favorite