This week, I’m featuring Buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis) as one of our local wildflowers that begins to bloom at this time.
View a brief video that summarizes its distinguishing features.
Buttonbush is a multi-stemmed shrub which typically grows 6-12’ tall. The lower branches become woody and brown, while new growth is green or red. Buttonbush is one of the last native shrubs to leaf-out in the spring. The leaves are usually opposite, although sometimes they occur in whorls of 3. They are up to 6″ long and 2½” across, ovate or ovate-oblong in shape, and have slender stems, smooth margins, and a glossy upper surface.
From 1-3 gumball- to golf ball-sized floral spheres occur on a flowering stalk that branches when more than a single flowerhead occurs. Some of the upper branches may terminate with these flowerheads, or a flowering stalk may occur from the axils of the leaves. Each flowerhead is comprised of many scented, creamy-white tubular flowers packed closely together. Each flower head has about 200 individual flowers. The long styles (slender stalks that join the stigma at its tip, which receives pollen produced by anthers, with the ovary at the bottom, which produces the seed) extend above the four anthers make it look like a pincushion. Each flower has 4 small spreading lobes. The long-lasting flowers are sweetly fragrant.
Afterwards, the flowerheads are replaced by spherical masses of multiple tiny two-seeded nutlets that turn red and eventually dark brown at maturity that persist through the winter.
This shrub can form extensive colonies.
The plant has a folk reputation for relieving malaria.
Culinary and Medicinal Uses:
WARNING: Common buttonbush contains the bitter glycoside cephalothin, which is poisonous. Ingestion of any part of the plant may cause vomiting, paralysis, and convulsions.
Native Americans used Buttonbush medicinally. Decoctions of the bark were used as washes for sore eyes, antidiarrheal agents, anti-inflammation and rheumatism medications, skin astringents, headache and fever relievers, and venereal disease remedies. The bark was also chewed to relieve toothaches. Roots were used for muscle inflammation and as blood medicines.
A tea made from the bark is astringent, emetic (induces vomiting), and febrifuge (used to reduce fever). A strong decoction has been used to treat diarrhea and dysentery, stomach complaints, and hemorrhages. It has also been used as a wash for eye inflammations. The leaves are astringent, diaphoretic (inducing perspiration), and diuretic (increases production of urine). A tea has been used to check menstrual flow and to treat fevers, kidney stones, and pleurisy. The inner bark has been chewed in the treatment of toothaches.
It is little used in modern herbalism.
The blossoms produce an abundance of nectar and pollen that attract bumblebees, cuckoo bees (Triepeolus spp.), Delaware Skipper (Anatrytone logan), Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio glaucus), green metallic bees (Agapostemon spp.), honeybees, leaf-cutting bees (Megachile spp.), long-horned bees (Melissodes spp.), longhorn beetles, Red Admiral (Vanessa atalanta), Silver-spotted Skipper (Epargyreus clarus), Syrphid flies, thick-headed flies (Conopidae), and various wasps. In addition, the Ruby-throated Hummingbird (Archilochus colubris) sometimes visits the flowers for nectar. This is the host plant for caterpillars of the Hydrangea Sphinx (Darapsa versicolor) and Titan Sphinx (Aellopos titan) moths. No butterfly larvae are known to feed on Buttonbush.
During fall migration, waterfowl eat the seeds of Buttonbush, including: American Wigeon (Anas americana), Black Duck (Anas rubripes), Blue-winged Teal (Anas discors), Canada Goose (Branta canadensis), Gadwall (Anas streperus), Green-winged Teal (Anas crecca), Mallard (Anas platyrhynchos), Northern Pintail (Anas acuta), Northern Shoveler (Anas clypeata), Ring-necked Duck (Aythya collaris), Virginia Rail (Rallus limicola), and Wood Duck (Aix sponsa). Other birds also feed on the seeds, including American Robin (Turdus migratorius).
Mammals usually avoid browsing on Buttonbush because it is bitter and poisonous.
Where Found Locally: