Butterfly Bush Landscaping Looks Pretty—but Beware of Seeding

This plant is a popular choice for drawing pollinators, but it can seed itself everywhere.

When you're ready to add something new to your landscape, take a moment and think about all the qualities in an ornamental plant that you might want. Chances are, you'd list qualities such as beautiful flowers, excellent resistance to diseases and pests, attractiveness to hummingbirds and butterflies, and rapid growth with very little fuss.

A butterfly bush in landscape design fits this description, which is why it's become such a popular choice for gardens across the country. But it has a significant drawback: It reseeds like crazy. In fact, it has been declared "noxious" by both Washington and Oregon, where it's no longer sold because it spreads so aggressively. Fortunately, you've got a few options for growing this plant responsibly.

flowering butterfly bush with butterfly on flowers
Marty Baldwin

Butterfly bush, a native of China, seemingly has it all. Flowers range in colors from purple, pink, white, and orange, and they attract all kinds of wildlife. Some cultivars even produce a wonderful honey-scented fragrance that wafts through the breeze. Sizes range from minuscule dwarves to giants over nine feet tall, and in warmer climates, they'll maintain their leaves throughout the winter. But that's about where their appeal stops, and their negative attributes begin to outweigh the positives.

With all those beautiful flowers attracting scads of pollinators to your garden come thousands of tiny seeds from which thousands of plants will grow and flourish.

In its preferred Hardiness Zones 5-9, butterfly bushes will quickly outcompete slower-growing native species. Although they provide copious amounts of nectar, the rest of the plant is inedible to native insects. Even hungry deer will leave it alone. Before long, butterfly bushes will pop up across the yard and neighborhood, eventually making their way to fields and along waterways.

So, let's say you still want to plant a butterfly bush landscaping. You love that sweet honey fragrance and those abundant spikes of colorful tiny flowers, despite the species' potential for invading your native ecosystem. Fortunately, you have a few options.

Your first option is to keep your pruners close when your butterfly bush starts blooming. Then, instead of letting your plants go to seed—you'll know it's happening when the flower spikes begin to fade and turn brown—cut off the flowers before they've started releasing seeds. Simple, really, but considering they'll produce thousands of flowers from the beginning of summer through fall, you'll have your work cut out for you.

Buddleia Guinevere butterfly bush
Richard Hirneisen

A second option now exists, thanks to the breeders developing new varieties of plants for us to grow in our yards. This option is to buy sterile selections that will drastically lessen the odds of your plants producing viable seed. For example, proven Winners offers a series called Lo & Behold, a collection of dwarf cultivars. At the same time, Ball Seed has released the Flutterby collection, offering both traditionally-sized plants and more compact options. The downside? They're all still potentially invasive unless you're quick with your pruners after they bloom.

Your third option is not to use butterfly bush in landscape design at all, but instead, plant a native species like orange woolly butterfly bush or Utah butterfly bush, both of which grow in warmer regions. Although less showy than the non-native species, they have gorgeous silvery foliage and won't spread aggressively. More hardy native alternatives that produce abundant showy flowers that draw pollinators include sweet pepperbush (Clethra alnifolia) and Joe Pye weed.

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