The Great Butterfly Bush Debate

The Great Butterfly Bush Debate

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Guest Rant by Claire Jones

Butterfly Bush, Buddleia davidii, has been widely bashed from garden writers, ecologists, and conservationists. Attacked from all sides by master gardeners and other garden professionals, I am sticking to my guns on the benefits and pleasures of planting it. “An invasive thug that only provides sugar-water”: That is the complaint that conservationists use to discourage you from planting this shrub.

As a preferred late summer nectar source and butterfly magnet, I enthusiastically promote it in my butterfly presentations for its many virtues. An important tool to draw butterflies, I also plant many natives next to it that can act as host plants.

One of the few flowering shrubs that deer will not touch, I use it all the time in my landscape designs as an easy to grow, beautiful, fragrant, disease free, flowering shrub. The only care required is a general whacking back of the whole shrub in the early spring to encourage bushiness and flower production. Over 100 varieties provide a wide palette of forms, sizes, and colors, to choose from. The dwarf varieties are especially valuable for small gardens and containers, like ‘Blue Chip’ and ‘Pink Chip’, growing only 4 feet tall.

Why do butterflies love this plant? Providing loads of sugar water , the nectar filled nectaries, are shallow which is important to accommodate the short-tongued butterfly. Butterflies can reach the copious nectar easily which has a high percentage of sucrose, an energy fuel. Attractive to moths, bees, and other insects, this plant is valuable to all kinds of wildlife, not just butterflies.

Native to Japan and China, butterflies don’t care where their source of nectar hails from. In my post Butterfly Watching, I noted that butterflies have taste receptors on their feet to locate food and if their foot’s receptor and the molecule match, the butterfly eats. So, the plant’s origin is irrelevant and is an attractive food source. As humans, we eat many non-native plants, why can’t a butterfly do the same?

Invasive thug or non-native adaptive? There are several ways of looking at this plant. I know that it invades into mostly disturbed areas where lots of aliens/invasives have already taken over and is known as an invasive in over 25 states. But still, it is providing an important late summer source, when it is sorely needed. The other short-coming that ecologists claim is that butterfly bush only provides nectar, not acting as a host plant for the caterpillar to reproduce, but that is also true of other native plants.

Butterfly Bush seeds do not ripen until dry weather during the following spring. Worried by the potential for invasiveness? Then you can dead head it before the seeds ripen in the spring or cut the whole bush back which will eliminate the spread of seeds into adjacent habitat. Colonizing disturbed ground sites such as railway lines, quarries, roadsides and waste ground, butterfly bush can form dense stands of shrubs that butterflies flock to. What’s not to like!? Here is the position of the UK’s Butterfly Conservation on their website.

Buddleia provides an important nectar source for adult butterflies, moths and other insects in townscapes and the countryside. This has become increasingly relevant because wildflowers have become so depleted following habitat loss and the general lack of nectar sources in the countryside. It also brings enjoyment to many people, both because of its heavy-scented and beautiful blooms but also because of the butterflies and other insects it attracts. It therefore plays a role, alongside other non-native garden plants, in helping to maintain or restore the link between people and native UK wildlife such as butterflies. In gardens, Buddleia is often pruned annually thus removing seed-heads and reducing the potential for seeding.

Buddleia is not important as a caterpillar food-plant and cannot replace naturally occurring wildflowers, which are crucial to provide a variety of nectar through the year as well as being food-plants for caterpillars. Buddleia can cause serious problems on some important conservation sites, especially brownfield sites. It needs to be controlled in these and other semi-natural sites to allow natural vegetation to develop. The cost of control can sometimes be considerable.

In reaching a position on Buddleia it is important to weigh up the undoubted benefits it brings in garden situations against the possible risks to wildlife habitats. It is also important to recognise that Buddleia is already naturalised and well established across much of the UK.

In view of its value as a nectar source, BC will continue to recommend its planting in gardens alongside other butterfly-friendly non-native plants, but will avoid giving it undue prominence and will give advice on its management and control. 

A sea change is going on with some conservationists, that we are dealing with a changed world and there is no way to go back to an idealized world of  stable co-habitating species. From the beginning of time, species have moved around, finding new territories, and creating new ecological niches. Invasive species, like it or not, are part of nature. Serving an ecological purpose, whether it aligns with our idea of what it should look like, isn’t relevant to nature.

And according to the Royal Horticultural Society:

  • Research reveals a mixture of native and non-native ornamental plants may provide the best resources for pollinating insects in gardens
  • Native plants are not always the first choice for pollinators visiting gardens
  • Non-native plants can prolong the flowering season providing an additional food source.

So, armed with this knowledge, you make the decision.

Claire designs award-winning landscapes in her business, Claire Jones Landscapes, LLC. A beekeeper for over 20 years, and a lifetime gardener, she is plugged into the natural world and has been able to combine her passion for gardening/photography/nature observation into her blog The Garden Diaries.

Posted by

Claire Jones

on August 31, 2015 at 10:33 am, in the category Gardening on the Planet, Guest Rants.

    • Vincent Vizachero
    • 22nd September 2016

    There is no debate about butterfly bush.

    • Ellen Schumann
    • 31st October 2016

    Finally, a sane article about an important nectar source, both for butterflies and hummingbirds, and for nectar of the soul for humans. It’s scent and nectar is beloved by butterflies and hummingbirds in my yard, and I can only hope more of it is planted soon, to meet the needs of wildlife… and humans, who also need beauty.
    It’s as if people have this strange need to bash something innocent, and the amount of internet ravings against this plant is really ridiculous. I have seen it growing wild in England, and I have traveled all around that lovely island several times and it is there, growing determinedly out of railroad tracks and abandoned buildings, and definitely NOT taking over; other plants abound! I think people are the ones invasive! Plants are opportunistic, which is their natural purpose, as nature abhors an empty patch of earth. Thanks so much for your article.

    • Beatriz Moisset
    • 14th November 2016

    One thing we all must remember about introduced plants (and this applies to all introduced ones, not just invasive ones) is that they have the potential of introducing pathogens, which in turn, may become serious problems. This can happen many years after the original introduction, even a century later and it is exacerbated by repeated introductions to other environments. Just take the example of the oleander aphid. The host plant, oleander, never got beyond the warmer areas of the south. The pest insect ravages milkweed plants throughout the continent. This alone is a powerful reason for abstaining from using non-native plants.

    • Benjamin
    • 14th November 2016

    That RHS research is great if you live in the UK where much less of native ecosystems are left than in the US, but still, the original abstract also says this: “There was, however, a greater abundance of total pollinators recorded on native and near-native treatments compared with the exotic plots.”

    • Ivette Soler
    • 14th November 2016

    I’d like to know – WHEN is “Native”? There was a time, before plant lust and acquisition thrilled the heart of Victorian gardeners, that was “Native”. I would like to know when that time was and how we get back there. How, in this world, do we turn back the clock so that we can have “Native” back.
    I love native plants. I use them in every garden, along with well-adapted plants that are proven in my exceptionally tough native climate. But let’s all be frank – “Native” is a marketing term. It is very popular. It is verging on faddish and trendy. I see more people backing away from sweeping generalizations about how native plants will save the world, and that is a good thing. It is easy being an ideologue, but it is the pragmatist that has to balance an equation and make things work.
    I used to be passionate about lawn removal. Now, after seeing the debacle that has been created with rebates for turf removal in Southern California, I question my former zeal. Experience has tempered my hard line, and I see that things in the real world are more subtle than they are in books and magazine articles, where a rallying cry is all you really need to have. In my opinion, gardeners should always be good stewards of the environment, but we have to know that anything that can be wrapped up into a neat little marketing package like “only plant things native to your region” are usually too easy. Nature isn’t that easy – it is messy and complicated and sometimes brutal.
    A butterfly bush isn’t the enemy – I think horticultural xenophobia COULD be an enemy, however. Plant good things. What those good things are can vary from place to place, climate to climate. Natives aren’t always the best choice. I pulled out almost an acre of native Rosa californica recently – invasive and a wonderful home for wildlife (rats and rattlesnakes).
    I just don’t believe that good work in our industry comes down to simple choices – so I am willing to let some buddlea be ok. Your hard line works for you, and that’s ok, but your hard line is also a romantic idea. For others, we work in gray areas, not the black and white. I need to extend my season with well-adapted non-natives, since native flowers have been gone for months by this time of year. Yet my garden is full of bees and butterflies, largely because of sources of nectar and pollen that come from non-native plants. Our largest native plant nursery isn’t even open at this time of year, because the plants they sell are all dormant. So what then? Because the habitat USED to be able to support a native only landscape, just go back to that and cross our fingers that the wildfires that also dominated the chaparral don’t rerun? Or maybe we should empty out Southern California and return it to its “Native” state?
    Interesting questions. I think the answer is somewhere in the middle of the hard line natives-only and the “plant whatever you want” approach.

    • Beatriz Moisset
    • 15th November 2016

    Ivette, you are disoriented about the meaning of native. What it refers to is to all the members of the biota before other species were introduced from beyond natural geographic barriers. It is a scientific term, not a commercial ploy. It is all about biological communities, natural ecosystems, biotas, not about artificial concepts. True, in many cases, you cannot say exactly what is native or not. But this is no reason for throwing away the concept. It is as if biologists discarded the concept of species because there is no definition that fits all cases.
    What is native? What is not? When does it matter?

    • Benjamin
    • 15th November 2016

    Hey Ivette, I design 100% native plant gardens — seems to be working quite well. I now many a designer who does the same all around the country.

    • Benjamin
    • 15th November 2016

    If we’re saying an acre of butterfly bush is better than an acre of lawn — if that’s what this ultimately comes down to — maybe. But I really don’t think so. Planting ANYTHING is what has us in so much trouble, Susan, and as lawn is a witness to, social / cultural ideology is hard to rewire; there was a good piece recently in the Atlantic about that.

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