Butterfly Bush (Buddleia davidii)

June 29, 2015

Buddleia davidii Pink with Monarchs

Upon the gardens where with pretty head
The flowers made their usual summer play…
-Vita Sackville-West


The flowers of Butterfly bush, Buddleia davidii, provide colorful, beautiful, four-to ten-inch-long, fragrant, upright or nodding panicles throughout mid and late summer. Buddleia davidii Nanho Purple with Tiger SwallowtailThe genus Buddleia comprises over 100 species, native to Central and South America, South Africa, and Asia. China, the country with the greatest number of species, is home to Buddleia davidii.  The genus name of this deciduous shrub published by Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778), in Genera Plantarum, was originally misspelled Buddleja to posthumously honor Adam Buddle (1662-1715), clergyman and botanist.  The davidii name was assigned in the late-1880’s, for Father Armand David (1826-1900), a French, Lazarist missionary. David, in China from 1862-1873, was the missionary/naturalist credited with first discovering this species in 1869. He described for western science hundreds of animals/birds, plants, and insects, including documenting the Dove tree.  He also notably was the first westerner to describe the giant panda.

…As delicate
As a butterfly
Along a cheek…
-Carl Rakosi

Buddleia davidii Nanho Purple flw

All butterfly bushes attract many different species of butterflies. Often the shrub is exponentially far more beautiful because of the continuous fluttering nearby, as well as by the mesmerizing opening and closing of their wings, when they do land on the flowers.  From the 1990 book, Butterfly Gardening by the Xerces Society / Smithsonian Institution, we quote, “Why do butterflies like some flowers more than others? Why is the taste and aroma of Buddleia nectar so infinitely more to their liking than the perfume and flavor of roses? We do not know. The fact is we know very little indeed about butterflies, but it is clear they prefer heavy perfume to delicate scents, and they must have the carbohydrates which they find in nectar, for flight demands a lot of energy….The plants advertise the presence of this vital food source with a delicious variety of scent and color….It is worth noting that where taste and smell are concerned, butterflies are superior to us. They not only have chemical receptors on their tongues and antennae, but also on their feet.”  Look for Butterfly bush, Buddleia davidii within our butterfly garden at Willow Pond.

Willow Pond with Wildflowers

On noisless wing a ‘wildered butterfly,
Seeking with memories grown dim o’er night
Some resting flower of yesterday’s delight
-Robert Frost

Flowering earlier in June was a different species, Buddleia alternifolia, Fountain Buddleia which has light-purple flowers, somewhat less fragrant than Butterfly bush, Buddleia davidii. Also referred to as alternate-leaf-butterfly-bush, this large shrub or small tree may grow to ten-feet or more in height, and as an anomaly within the genus has alternate leaves, instead of the more usual opposite leaf placement. The panicles of flowers however may reach or exceed 20-inches-long, producing a striking visual display. We grow a fine specimen near where Spelman Road meets Mound Avenue.

Stay near me –do not take thy flight!
A little longer stay in sight!
Much converse do I find in thee,
Historian of my infancy!…
-William Wordsworth

Buddleia alternifolia flw

For many decades, Mount Auburn’s horticulture department has been planning and planting with consideration to improve wildlife habitat. Accordingly there are scores of other plants growing here to provide nectar for butterflies, bees, insects, and hummingbirds in addition to Buddleia.  wildflowermeadowhlThere is however the understanding of the four life stages that all butterflies pass through, egg, larva, pupa, and adult.  The larvae (caterpillars) themselves transform through several stages, or instars (usually five), then pupate as  chrysalids, before the new butterfly emerges. Caterpillars are eating machines, and most butterfly adults select specific plants to place their eggs upon.

Quoting again from Butterfly Gardening,… “Caterpillars of most butterflies are not omnivorous feeders. They are astonishingly selective. Some species will feed on only one plant for their entire larval lives. The monarch is a classic example: this caterpillar eats nothing but plants in the milkweed family.” This preferred larval leaf choice includes many others; tiger swallowtail eats tulip tree, spicebush swallowtail eats spicebush, great spangled fritillary eats violet, mourning cloak eats willow, orange sulfur eats clover, banded hairstreak eats oak, viceroy eats willow, red-spotted purple eats black cherry, comma eats elms, etc. All of these plants and many more specific to larval needs of other butterfly species are growing throughout our landscape.

On a closing note, there are states in the Pacific Northwest, and in the south that have listed Butterfly bush, Buddleia davidii on their do not plant invasive species lists. Both the Massachusetts www.mass.gov/agr/farmproducts/ and Invasive Plant Atlas of New England www.eddmaps.org/ipane do not list Butterfly bush, Buddleia davidii on their invasive, likely invasive, or potentially invasive lists. As this plant may be a heavy seeder, at Mount Auburn it is annually pruned back hard at the end of the flowering season.


About the Author: Jim Gorman

Visitor Services Assistant View all posts by Jim Gorman →

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