The Much-Maligned Buddleia

I am here to ask that people stop bashing Buddleia. Commonly known as butterfly bush, Buddleia (Buddleja) varieties are attractive, low-water and easy-care plants for Southwest gardens. Unfortunately, because they are invasive in some populous areas of the country, misinformation abounds on growing this plant in the plains and Southwest. So, I want to set the record straight for those of who garden in dry climates. Here is the good and the bad of Buddleia:

Why Does Everyone Hate Butterfly Bush?

First, most Buddleias are not native to North America. I agree that we need to favor native plants over non-native ones. However, one of the best reasons for choosing natives is ability to adapt to conditions, such as low water use. Well, guess what? Butterfly bush is drought tolerant after it is established and actually does poorly in soggy conditions.

butterfly-bush-in-rock-garden
The butterfly bush in the right center is the perfect height to balance a natural garden and close enough to see butterflies.

Second, non-native plants can become invasive. There are two reasons why this should not concern most growers in the Southwest. Buddleia davidii plants have been declared invasive in most of the Pacific Northwest, areas along the California coast and on the eastern seaboard. They need a little more water than some varieties. Southwestern states have completely different growing conditions, and the plant is not invasive in any drier climates I’ve visited. Further, I leave all branches and flowers on my plant all winter. I have never spotted a new butterfly bush cropping up.

butterfly-bush-winter
Here is that butterfly bush in winter. It still gives height to the garden and a place for birds to land.

Finally, there are several Buddleia varieties that are native to North America (see below).  And you can bet that as soon as plant breeders saw all the fuss about banning butterfly bushes, they got busy. So, there are plenty of sterile varieties available. That means they will not set seeds and make new plants that clutter and invade your landscape.

monarch-butterfly-buddleia
In case you need evidence, here is a Monarch butterfly on my butterfly bush a few years ago.

Why Do I Love Butterfly Bush?

This is one of my favorite plants in the landscape. The one we have is front and center in our garden. It was planted at least 8 years ago by the previous owners of our home. And it still looks great every summer.

Here are some of my favorite features of Buddleia:

  • Butterflies flock to the aptly named plant (although it is not considered a “host”  plant, butterflies enjoy the flowers’ nectar). So do hummingbirds. I wouldn’t rely on a buddleia as a sole source for helping butterflies, but it can be part of a pollinator landscape.
  • Butterfly bushes bloom all summer, can take heat and need no deadheading (if in a dry climate or growing a sterile or noninvasive variety).
  • Larger buddleias have winter interest and serve as a landing spot for winter birds.
  • Talk about easy: We water deeply once each spring after pruning. We only water other times in periods extreme heat and drought.
  • You can prune butterfly bush to a foot or less above ground in early spring as new growth appears along the lower branches. Also remove dead branches. That’s all it needs to grow and bloom each summer.
  • The bush is deer resistant, a big plus for mountain and high desert gardens.
butterfly-bush-purple-flower
It’s a flower full of little flowers that attract butterflies and hummingbirds.

Safe Buddleia Varieties

As I said, there are some butterfly bushes native to the Southwest and new hybrids with sterile flowers. Here are a few examples:

  • B. alternifolia Fountain. Grows to about 12 feet tall in a fountain shape with purple flowers.
  • B. marrubifolia, also known as Orange Wooly Butterfly Bush,  is native to the Chihuahuan desert, with whitish foliage and orange flowers.
  • B. utahensis, or Utah Butterfly Bush, is native to Utah, Arizona, California, and Nevada.
  • Dwarf varieties such as B. davidii var. annhoensis.

See more choices and photos in this article from Garden Design Magazine. I have been testing a new variety called B. alternifolia ‘Unique’ that I brought back from a meeting in Atlanta several years ago, in my suitcase. We kept it alive in a sunny spot all winter and  planted it the next spring. It’s a dwarf variety with pinkish-lavender flowers that is perfect for butterfly containers.

small-butterfly-bush-lavender-color
B. alternifolia ‘Unique’ is a dwarf butterfly bush.

You can find butterfly bush varieties in white, lavender, deep purple, magenta, and others. So, don’t be afraid to plant Buddleia in your low-water garden. Check at the nursery or online seller to make sure the variety you choose is either native or bred to be sterile. And when looking for gardening information, check more than one source, one of which is local or regional!

branches-dwarf-buddleia
Close-up of the B. alternifolia ‘Unique’ branches. Pretty foliage and pinkish purple blooms!