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June 2010 cover image 12 Out on the Pier

Flora Fact : Buttonbush is one funky flower

Buttonbush blooms are full of nectar, not beauty.

By Sheryl Smith-Rodgers

The honey-like fragrance of a buttonbush in bloom always takes Diane Cabiness back to a simpler time. “I imagine ladies sitting on an old-fashioned porch, sipping their tea,” says the Montgomery landscaper who specializes in native plants. “In the background is a buttonbush, covered with white flowers.”

Butterflies and bees like it, too. Like Cabiness, they’re drawn to the odd blooms that resemble golf balls stuck with scads of knobbed straight pins. Botanically speaking, those pins are actually slender pistils, tipped with pollen-collecting stigmas and rising from tiny, four-petaled, tubular flowers that together form the golf ball. They also produce loads of nectar. So much, according to the Roadside Flowers of Texas, that beehives in the vicinity of buttonbushes reportedly produce large amounts of honey. And in fact, one of the common names for this species is honeyballs.

Photo by Rusty Ray

Thickets of Cephalanthus occidentalis inhabit low, moist soils found near streams, ponds and other wetlands across the state. Usually shrub sized, a buttonbush can grow taller than 12 feet. Its lustrous, green leaves — mostly arranged in opposite pairs on branches — sicken livestock but not deer.

Back to those funky flowers. They appear from late spring into early autumn, leaving reddish-brown fruit balls that look like buttons. Well into winter, buttonbush nutlets and seeds feed many bird species, especially ducks, who don’t care a whit what they look or smell like.

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