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Plant Profile: Double Your Pleasure with Buddleia

by Lynn Hunt

I like to think that for every bad trick Mother Nature plays on us we are rewarded with something good. It's true we have to put up with pests like Japanese beetles for several weeks during the summer, but at the same time we get butterflies. Not a bad trade-off. Especially when you consider we also get to enjoy the pleasures of the spectacular plants that attract the bright little jewels, such as the graceful, colorful buddleia.

Buddleia davidi is probably the most familiar and widely grown of the "butterfly bushes." With it’s long, arching branches and densely packed clusters of fragrant flowers, this buddleia is an excellent choice for the mixed border or mass plantings. Impatient gardeners should note that butterfly bushes are late starters. The velvety gray-green leaves don't appear until after most other shrubs have leafed out, and the parade of blooms may not start until summer. However the show is definitely worth the wait. In fact, once buddleia gets going, it can grow up to eight feet tall in one season and will bloom until frost.

Buddleia was named to honor an English clergyman, Adam Buddle, who studied and wrote about mosses and grasses. Pere David, a French missionary, was the first Westerner to discover the plant in the highlands of west and central China. Seeds sent to the Kew Gardens in England in 1896 eventually produced shrubs that became the rage among British gardeners. In its native land buddleia is known as summer lilac. Legends hold that thickets of the vigorous shrub with the eye-catching flower spikes once provided shelter for wild leopards.

Here, buddleias are havens for butterflies. About 700 species of butterflies currently exist in North America, however only 63 are common. Sadly, urban sprawl and increasing use of pesticides are pushing many butterflies to the brink of extinction. Tall shrubs like buddleia can double as windscreens and safe areas where butterflies can roost. You may see brilliantly marked males perched on branches watching for an attractive female to flit by.

In addition to offering a safe haven for butterflies, buddleias provide the flower nectar that is their main source of food. In fact, buddleia is by far the most popular butterfly snack bar. They will choose its nectar in preference to any other plant. Butterfly bushes are also a favorite of hummingbirds, particularly the ruby-throated variety.

Along with planting buddleia, you can do a few other things to help butterflies thrive in your garden. For example, they must warm their wings before they can fly and perform best when their body temperature is between 85 and 100 degrees. Adding flat stones to a sunny area near the buddleias will give them a place to land and bask. Although you may often see butterflies at the birdbath, they prefer drinking from dirty puddles -- something in the mud restores vital nutrients. If you don’t want to allow a mud puddle to form in

your garden, set out a shallow saucer filled with dirt and keep it wet.

Now that you know how important buddleia is to butterflies, you'll want to make sure your plants remain as healthy as possible. The butterfly bush grows in Zones 5 - 10 and will do well in most any locale from the city to the seaside. In areas where winters are severe, the shrub may be killed to the ground, however, it will grow back from the roots in spring. In milder climates, the plants can either be cut back to the ground to encourage more flowering or allowed to form a woody shrub. A good rule of thumb is to prune when the daffodils are in bloom.

Buddleia prefers full sun and well-drained soil that has been enriched with peat moss or compost. When blooms start to fade, deadhead to promote more flowering. Keep an eye out for the buddleiaís major pest

problem—spider mites. Fertilize again in August to encourage a showy fall display. Then sit back and enjoy the double treat of seeing beautiful spikes of buddleia blooms come alive with butterflies.

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