Buddleia: The Butterfly’s Bud

Buddleia 'Miss Molly' and a Monarch butterfly

Buddleia ‘Miss Molly’ is one of the new mid-size cultivars. It is as close to red as currently available in the butterfly bush.

A shrub that is best friends with butterflies and hummingbirds and on the do-do list for deer, hmmm, how can that get any better?  Dare I mention rather extreme drought tolerance and beautiful flowers in a rainbow of colors?  What about a fantastic range of sizes for the mature plants?  That should do it. The past 5 years have seen a fantastic explosion of new cultivars, new sizes, and improvements in this genus.  In days of old, the only size was 6-10′ (height mostly dependent on climate, up to 16′ in very mild areas).  Cultivars such as ‘Nanho Blue’ promised a more compact form back then, but really they all ended up about the same size in Spokane.  Our winters often prune the plants (gardeners remove any dead stems in spring after it is clear which parts of the shrub are still viable).  Now, we have miniature butterfly bushes for the front of the border, midsize plants for the average bed, and the big shrubs of old as well.

Buddleia 'Pink Micro Chip' is a miniature butterfly bush suitable for the front of the border.

Buddleia ‘Pink Micro Chip’ is a miniature butterfly bush suitable for the front of the border.

Don’t get me wrong, the old cultivars are still very garden worthy and ideal for larger landscapes.  But as a  gardener and purveyor of plants, it is very exciting to have some of the new options for colorful dwarf varieties.  We now can offer plants as compact as Buddleia ‘Pink Micro Chip’ shown at right.  Though this is a plant in its first bloom still in the nursery pot and will get larger, its full size is reported to be 18-24″ by the folks at Proven Winners.  This is the most compact butterfly bush we’ve ever seen bloom.  And so there’s no confusion, that’s the whole plant that is 24″.  Single blooms of the  standard buddleia can run around 12″ long and 3″ wide for some cultivars.  This dwarf is an exciting development, slightly smaller than ‘Blue Chip’, ‘Ice Chip’ (white), and ‘Purple Haze’ which are other dwarf varieties.

In warm climates, buddleias are sometimes pruned into more formal shapes and offered in pots as “patio trees”.  While ornamental for the first season, the buddleia blooms on new wood, so the gardener must keep the pruning up to date or the plant will not have enough new growth for a big bloom display.  In Spokane the issue will be death if left outdoors in a pot over winter.  These Zone 5 plants are barely sufficient for our worst winters planted in the ground (7 of 8 survive a tough winter in our experience); they will perish left outside in a pot.  If you happen upon one of these, treat it as an annual in Spokane.

The species most widely grown for this genus is Buddleia davidii, named for Father Armand David who noted the plant in central China in 1887.  The lilac colored blooms with an orange eye, shown at left, are typical of the species.  In climates with mild winters, such as Seattle or Portland, this species has been something of a nuisance with unwanted seedlings, but that is a rare occurrence in Spokane.  My only experience with seedlings was when I briefly grew Buddleia hemsleyana on the property as well…hybrid vigor I suppose.  That’s my explanation for the seedlings then, but those stopped when I removed the rarer species.  Spokane gardeners get the best of the butterfly bush without the hassle of lots of weeding. So invite the butterflies and hummingbirds and don’t fear a dry spell or the deer.  The butterfly bush is a performer for every garden!

Buddleia davidii 'Dubonnet' shown growing in a dry, location given minimal care. Large shrub with multiple deep magenta blooms.

Buddleia davidii ‘Dubonnet’ given only once a year pruning and surviving well in drought and deer.

Bloom of Buddleia davidii showing lilac color and orange eyes on florets.

The species Buddleia davidii has lilac blooms with orange eyes and has been grown for over a century as a popular garden item.


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