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Attract Butterflies: Plant Butterfly Bushes

by Don Janssen, Extension Educator
Ladybugs

Purple Butterfly Bush
(Photo Above by V. Jedlicka)
Yellow Butterfly Bush
(Photo Below by S. Cochran)

Yellow Butterfly Bush

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An excellent way to attract butterflies to your garden is to plant annuals and perennials that are good nectar sources. Another irresistible attraction for butterflies is the butterfly bush (Buddleia davidii).

Butterfly bushes are medium-sized, woody shrubs. However, they're generally regarded as herbaceous perennials in Nebraska because they typically die back to the ground each winter. Fortunately, their performance is not greatly affected by the extensive dieback. Butterfly bushes grow back rapidly after the dead wood is removed in early spring and bloom on the current year's growth. Plants generally have a loose, open, arching habit. By the end of summer, plants are often 5 to 6 feet tall.

The leaves of the butterfly bush are 4 to 10 inches long and 1 to 3 inches wide. Upper leaf surfaces are grayish to bluish green. The undersides of the leaves are grayish white.

In addition to attracting butterflies, the fragrant flowers also lure bees to the garden. The small, 1/4 to 1/3 inch-wide flowers are borne on dense, 6 to 12 inch-long spikes (panicles). Flowering typically begins in early summer and continues until frost. Buddleia davidii cultivars possess a wide range of flower colors including white, yellow, pink, blue, violet, and purple. The flower panicles on some varieties are upright, while others have a graceful, arching form.

Butterfly bushes perform best in moist, well-drained soils in partial to full sun. Avoid wet, poorly drained sites. Also, select sites that provide winter protection. Butterfly bushes planted in open, exposed sites are more likely to be destroyed by harsh, winter weather.

Maintenance practices are fairly simple. Remove spent flower panicles to encourage additional bloom through the summer. In late fall, mound a few inches of mulch around the base of each plant. The mulch protects the plant crowns and will hopefully prevent their complete destruction. The following spring, remove the soil and prune the plants back to within a few inches of the ground.

Insects and diseases are generally not major problems. The biggest threat to the butterfly bush is our harsh winter weather.

While varieties of Buddleia davidii are the most widely planted butterfly bush in the midwest, the alternate-leaf butterfly bush (Buddleia alternifolia) is another possibility for home landscapes. This species is slightly more hardy than Buddleia davidii. As a result, it usually doesn't die back to the ground during winter. Plants are large, arching shrubs that grow approximately 10 feet tall. Lilac-purple flowers appear in June on the previous year's growth.

(This resource was last updated February 2005 and appeared in the Lincoln Journal Star Newspaper Sunday edition. For information on reproducing this article or using any photographs or graphics, read the Terms of Use statement)

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University of Nebraska-Lincoln Extension in Lancaster County is your on-line yard and garden educational resource. The information on this Web site is valid for residents of southeastern Nebraska. It may or may not apply in your area. If you live outside southeastern Nebraska, visit your local Extension office