Butterfly Bush Beware

Butterfly Bush is an Invasive Species. Caution recommended

I received an interesting comment on my post about Invasive Species Awareness week. Wanda said:

I can’t belive butterfly bush is on that list. I’ve just sent that web site to all my garden club members!!! I have a purple and white butterfly bush at my house in NC and I just love to watch the butterflies have a feast every summer.

Yes, Butterfly Bush (Buddleia spp) is an invasive plant. Oregon has even banned the sale of this plant. I’ve seen it in action myself as it is blocking out fragile dune vegetation on the beaches in Cape May, NJ. I’ve also seen it taking over an entire streambank for miles along a stream in the Poconos of Pennsylvania.

Invasive Butterfly Bush Destroying Stream Bank Vegetation

Now, I know that this may seem like some confusing information because almost every book and magazine article you may find recommends planting Butterfly Bush to attract butterflies to your wildlife garden.

Why do they recommend this plant?

Well the butterflies do like to nectar at this plant, that’s true. But responsible wildlife gardeners also need to look at the consequences of our decisions in our gardens on the surrounding ecosystems.

In order to prevent Butterfly Bush from escaping out of your garden and into the nearby natural areas, you really need to dead head every bloom, and never let it go to seed. This can be almost a full time job because as you’ve probably noticed, this plant has TONS of flowers.

Trying to keep up with this one garden chore is the whole reason I have removed all of the Butterfly Bushes from my gardens and replaced it with native plants that provide lots of nectar to attract butterflies, but that also support other wildlife and do no harm to the natural ecosystems around my home.

Where is Butterfly Bush invasive you ask? Check out this map. It’s considered invasive in each of the green shaded states. If you’re not in one of these states, I’d still exercise a huge amount of caution, because it may be only a matter of time.

Rosemary at Toronto Gardens has written a wonderful piece about native alternatives to the invasive Butterfly Bush.

I certainly don’t want to be responsible in any way for contributing to any more damage to the environment. How about you?

  1. says

    Really too bad, as the name implies it is “just the thing” for attracting butterflies. And, it is really a pretty bloom. I wouldn’t plant it, since it is not native to So Cal, but I’d like to see it try to get invasive around here w/our Summer drought.

    • says

      Adult butterflies do like the nectar, that’s the truth, but it’s causing so many problems in so many areas that I’d rather use some native plants that butterflies find just as attractive than set this one loose.

    • says

      Butterfly bush is not invasive everywhere. In the US, it is only a “problem” in Washington state and Oregon. I put “problem” in double quotes because although it colonizes areas freely, it does not smother an area like some other invasives. Buddleia is being watched in maybe half a dozen other states including California and my home state of North Carolina as potentially a problem. However, you won’t hear any butterflies complaining about there being too many butterfly bushes. Native butterflies like Buddleia nectar just as much (or more) than they like their native food sources. So you have to ask yourself which organism do you want to support more…1. native plants that have to share space with Buddleia, or 2. native butterflies that need more food. The newer butterfly bushes coming out of the university breeding programs are sterile or nearly so and do not represent a problem even in the sensitive states and so represent a perfect solution no matter which side you are on. Try growing ‘Miss Molly’ or ‘Blue Chip’ or any of the others put out by Dr. Dennis Werner of NC State University as they are mostly sterile and have a superior color and/or form compared to the older cultivars.

  2. Peter Pereira says

    Hi Carol, which plants would you recommend that attract butterflies in Colorado?. Most garden stores advise a person to buy butterfly bushes. A native alternate would be great. Thanks..Peter Pereira

    • says

      Hi Peter, I’m not so expert in Colorado plants but let me do some research and I’ll come back with some suggestions. Someday I’d love to visit Colorado. I hear it’s beautiful out there :)

      • says

        Peter, I am in Colorado near Monument, and I have to say that in my experience Butterfly Bush does not show any invasive tendencies where I am, mostly because of the elevation and cold winters. Many times the bush does not come back at all, or if so is late out of the gate. I agree with Carole on most things, and that Butterfly Bush is invasive in many areas. But I have to be truthful in saying that I think sometimes blanket statements of invasive plants are not always applicable across the board. Butterfly Bush is not listed in the noxious weeds of Colorado, at least not yet. The list is located here: http://www.colorado.gov/cs/Satellite/Agriculture-Main/CDAG/1174084048733. Don’t get me wrong, I am all for native plants over aggressive ornamentals, just trying to point out that sometimes a 1 size fits all explanation doesn’t always fit all!

        • David Goodfellow says

          The good news for lovers of this plant is that breeders have been working hard and have succeeded in producing non-seeding varieties of Buddleja which are safe to plant, since they cannot spread. The state of Oregon has even allowed the sale of these forms at nurseries there. See this link for details and a list of varieties to look out for. http://c.ymcdn.com/sites/www.oan.org/resource/resmgr/Files/Digger-201310_Buddleja_pp33-.pdf

          So now you can feed you local butterfly and insect populations and enjoy this plant without feeling you are doing something wrong. Happy growing!

  3. Tim Tingle says

    I am a Master Gardner and have grown butterfly bushes for years and have never known then to be invasive.

    • says

      I didn’t think they were in my area either, until I ran into a neighbor with a rocky hillside, and she had them volunteering like crazy between the rocks. One plant can lead to a whole slew of the little buggers popping up if you’ve got the right conditions. (Said neighbor was not terribly pleased that her rock garden was being conquered by six-foot shrubs…)

      • says

        Wow, Ursula, I feel really sorry for your neighbor. Once they start, they’re really hard to get rid of. And I can’t imagine a rock garden filled with nothing but these shrubs. Doesn’t sound fun at all :(

    • Linda Mellone says

      I, like Tim, have been growing these bushes for years, and not once have I noticed them to be invasive! If you maintain them properly you can prevent overgrowth.

  4. Stacy says

    This is good information Carole. Melinda Myers also cautions against butterfly bush. Some people grow it and have no problem, but it’s just good to be aware of it and knowing whether it’s a problem in your area. I think having a good local nursery is best because they’ll know how to advise you.

  5. Patty says

    Carole, Thank you for the excellent article on Butterfly Bush. They have just released some new sterile varieties of this plant for gardeners here in Oregon, though I wonder about possible issues as have been found with purple loose strife cross pollinating with sterile hybrid forms and those plants actually producing live seeds.

    You can see butterfly bushes growing in waste areas and showing up in compost around Portland and have for some time. My hope is that if we keep the information out in front of people long enough at least they will be aware of the problem it poses as an invasive plant species and also to the butterfly larvae. Thanks again!

    • says

      Thanks, Patty :) I have to admit those “sterile” versions kind of scare me because as you mention, we were told that Purple Loosetrife hybrids were “sterile” until they cross-pollinated with non-sterile plants and all of the sudden became quite viable. They also touted Bradford Pear as being sterile and now it is running rampant through natural woodlands across the country. I’m just a little skeptical about the Buddleia remaining sterile given those two examples.

  6. Kris says

    I had no idea this was an issue. I have had two butterfly bushes in my yard for years. I have never seen it ‘spread’ to other areas and wasn’t aware that it was capable of doing so. I will keep a closer eye on mine from now on to prevent a problem. Luckily, I have always spent time dead heading the blooms. This seems to encourage more blooms and, I now realize, protects my environment. Thank you for the information.

  7. Carrie says

    I’m contemplating planting a dwarf version in a container. If I deadhead, do you think I’ll be ok with it not spreading? I’m also in the planning stages of turning my side yard into a completely native bird/butterfly garden.

  8. Donna says

    I never heard this before. Is this a problem in the northeast as well? I have 5 butterfly bushes that I’ve had for a few years & do deadhead almost all the blooms. It is a huge job doing this but well worth it to me to see so many butterflies, hummingbirds & other critters I never would see without them. I will be even more diligent in removing spent blooms!

  9. says

    I’ve had Butterfly Bushes for yrs and never had a problem with them spreading. I have 3 right now,, they get the occasional dead head just for more flowers and I water them, no feeding. They haven’t spread though. Thanks for the warning and I will make sure to keep them in check. I’m in Indiana and have never seen them as a problem.

  10. says

    If butterfly bush was invasive in my part of the country (Coastal Carolinas) I would have known it by now. We have three large plants growing in my back yard that are about seven years old. I’m bad about leaving the blossom heads on all year round. We have honeybees in our yard so they get well pollinated. There is no way this plant is invasive here.

  11. says

    Thanks for all of your comments. I’ve added a map from invasives.org that shows all of the states where this plant is listed on the invasive species list. It’s important to remember that you may not see this plant spreading in your garden.

    The seeds are extremely tiny and easily dispersed by wind and rain, and each plant can produce over 100,000 seeds. This is creating huge problems in natural woodlands, and these plants in our gardens are the cause of that.

  12. says

    Butterfly bush IS invasive, and the State of NJ has banned it from public lands. I wish they would ban its sale, too. I’ve got it sprouting all over my yard. And unlike our native shrubs, butterfly bush does not support any butterflies or moths in their larval form. Do wildlife a favor and plant shrubs that feed both nectaring adults AND leaf-eating caterpillars. I’ve got a few suggestions for shrubs in this article: http://insects.about.com/od/butterfliesmoths/qt/substitutes-for-butterfly-bush.htm

  13. says

    I see from the map that there are many locations where Buddleia spreads freely. Most folks in Iowa have trouble even getting them to survive more than a few seasons–it’s very marginal here. However, I have found that deadheading is well worth the reward of continual bloom well into fall. I imagine that availability will decline as more states ban the plant. I guess given its marginality here, that won’t be a huge loss.

  14. says

    Here in the northwest piedmont of North Carolina Butterfly Bush is very popular. It is starting to be a problem on some properties that our landscaping business has maintained. I am a native plant grower and advocate and I quit growing it in our nursery operation three years ago when I started noticing the problem, and the even worse problem around the corner. There are many native alternatives that would be so much better for our ecosystems..

    • says

      Kevin, I have the utmost respect for my local native plant nurseries! I find that they are passionate advocates for protecting the environment, and are the best sources of information for what plants will work best in my garden. They are the best resources around. Thanks for the great work you’re doing :)

  15. says

    People need to remember that even if you don’t see a plant’s offspring in your own garden, does not mean it isn’t producing offspring! Butterfly bush seeds can travel great distances–they can float in water, and be carried by cars and trains.

    There are lots of lovely native shrubs that attract butterflies, and many also produce berries for the birds and are larval hosts for butterflies! Carole’s post inspired me to look into Native alternatives to butterfly bush. My article focuses on shrubs native to Ontario, but gardeners elsewhere in Canada and the US can easily find suitable natives for their area at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center Native Plant Database.

  16. JeanneZ says

    I have 2 butterfly bushes and do not deadhead but have never gotten any starters. I keep looking for them as I would like to start more plants.What is the trick to getting starters?

  17. says

    I have 7 butterfly bushes. One was planted when I purchased my house 11 years ago. At that time it was the only existing bush and had not spread. The bushes that I have planted over the last 3 years are at various stages. I mostly deadhead but allowed a couple of heads to go to seed to sww what would happen. As you might guess, I have several baby bushes poking up out of my butterfly garden. The answer is to deadhead and to remove young plants to control ones garden. They are fast growers, so prudent pruning is a must. I never heard of the invasive issue before this but can see how when introduced and uncared for that this species can be invasive. Constant vigilance will be my task. I would do no less with my Monarda which also seems to life to send out shoots. As gardeners it is important to try to keep up with our gardens and our education about what we put into our soils. Thank you for the heads up! Great issue for discussion!

  18. says

    There’s definitely nicer bushes… I like Vitex agnus-castus (chaste tree)… Yeah, another import…
    The buddleia performs very poorly in my droughty location… Coming up from dropped seeds in an irrigated garden, I can barely keep it alive in my dryland garden. People that get rain… look out… I spent a couple of years recently in the smoky mountains, where I saw this pest coming up from seeds very well… In middle GA, though… it’s prone to root knot nematodes, and strictly a non-starter…

    For butterflies in my sand-hill garden, nothing beats highbush lantana. This is a native, and does fine in my dry garden… I walk around with a camera and see how many butterflies I can get in a single shot…

  19. Renee says

    I lived in Portland Or. until about 15 yrs. ago and planted one in our back yard. It got huge in a short ammount of time so when we moved to Mass., I planted 3 but they struggel along. I’ve never seen them grow wild in either state but when we were in London last yr., we came back amazed that they were growing all along the railroad tracks and roadsides….so they must be invasive. Here in Mass. we see too much loose strife and honeysuckel taking over.

  20. says

    I do love how many butterflies that the blooms attract to my butterfly and bird garden. I counted 12 Yellow Tiger Swallowtails at one time around the largest shrub (over 6′ tall with purple blooms). In the last few years as I spend time out in my garden trying to pull out all the garlic mustard, japanese stilt grass, crab grass, poison ivy and numerous other weeds and sticker bushes (my main butterfly garden is on a sunny hill at the edge of a thin wooded area which backs to a field overgrown with invasives – quite literally an uphill battle) I’ve noticed a few butterfly bushes popping up quite a ways from the “parent” plant. I try to deadhead as much as possible, but towards the end of last season I was burnt out, so I let the higher up blooms go to seed. And knowing that I’ve got more garden than one woman can keep up with, digging the existing ones up before they go to bloom and seed and replacing them with other natives is the way to go for me. I know that this plant does well in my area – so I’m going to just have to get over that internal gut feeling and voice that argues “it is a good nectar source and pollinator attractor” and admit – I’ve seen it spread – I know what potential this shrub without keeping it in check can do. Darn. I really love those tall cascading ever present blooms and butterflies, moths, skippers, bees, etc. Ugh. This is a hard one to swallow. But there are better alternatives and I’m going to figure it out for my garden ASAP! Thanks for all the information.

  21. Carole says

    We live in MD and our bushes are planted in a managed garden. Perhaps that’s why we’ve only had one volunteer in all the years we’ve had them. We get such pleasure in watching the butterflies feed from our Buddleia bushes – with all the activity, it looks like a living bush. We planted three for variety of color and although I deadhead the lilacs I never deadhead the spent blossoms of the Butterfly bushes. They get pruned in the autumn or the early spring. Even my Bee Balm behaves itself:)
    We must always try to avoid planting the invasive plants – look what happened with kutzo!

  22. Ryan says

    I realize that by this point no one may be reading this but I feel it important that a story should be fleshed out. First let me say I understand what you are trying to do, obviously natives are very much important and I try to encourage their use wherever possible. However, when one goes about making such alarmist statements without a more complete understanding of the situation I take issue with it. I live in Florida, a state infamous for its overwhelming number of invasive plants and animals but no where, in any document, on any website can I find any evidence to support your claim of it as invasive in my state. The map you feature in your article has it highlighted and the article you cite itself has citations which are either no longer in service or make no mention of this species as invasive to my state at all. As such I can’t help but consider the claim dubious especially since neither USDA, USF’s Atlas for vascular plants of Florida or the Center for Aquatic and Invasive plants list this species as even remotely invasive.
    Don’t get me wrong, several species of Buddleja are vouchered as seen in disturbed sites, such as madagascariensis, lindleyana, and indica but not davidii. The truth is davidii is at its southern most range in our state and often it doesn’t handle our long stretches of high humidity very well and is often assaulted by nematodes and is lucky to last through a year. This being the case I generally encourage davidii’s use in our state to help support our natives since so many have shorter blooming seasons than exotics such as Buddleja davidii and Aloysia virgata so as to support and encourage our lepidoptera population. Where Florida does have a major problem with invasive to our state then I very much encourage the use of native alternatives, especially when it comes to Lantana and Asclepias species but Buddleja davidii is not and likely will not be a problem in Florida.
    My apologies for being so straight forward but I felt this needed to be said.

  23. Rusty says

    Ok I read this article and think its a joke I live in Ohio and have had butterfly bushes for 6 yrs. they are some of my best plants they don’t spread or anything like the article says. Maybe you have another type. But I have 3 purple and 2 whites

  24. eclectic cottage says

    I just wanted to mention this when I saw that NY was noted on the list of states where this is considered invasive: several of my local county soil and water conservation districts sell them as part of their spring plant sales. I am guessing that the state does not consider them invasive, or the counties wouldn’t be selling them as conservation plants. I guess it’s buyer beware, and it might depend on your location within the state on whether or not they are invasive.

  25. JWM says

    I have had butterfly bushes at several homes in the Atlanta, GA area for years. All have been beautiful and quite easy. None of them have ever spread. However, about 4 years ago, I purchased another variety (and the name escapes me now) with foliage and blooms that are slightly different from the others I have had. Well, it is spreading like wild and seems totally unfazed by severe pruning. It looks just like the picture from the stream bank in this article. It definitely is not as attractive as the well-behaved variety.

  26. Denise B says

    I live in southeast Georgia, and have grown white, yellow, and purple butterfly bushes for the past 10 years. I live in an agricultural district, where there is a huge possibility for these plants to spread. I’m in a wheelchair, and do not prune until the fall. I have never seen any of these plants anywhere else in the neighborhood except for where they are growing.

  27. Linda says

    Buddleja Lindleyana is taking over my yard in south Texas. It is spreading all over my yard by runners. Pruning it and pulling it out the suckers made it send up more and more plants. Any root fragment or clippings left in the yard results in new plants. I received my plants from a private greenhouse and the grower wasn’t aware of this problem. Buddleja Lindleyana has not set seed for me. I’m telling this so others will be careful.

    I’ve got the Davidii and they are well behaved.

  28. kel says

    i have the davidii also and live in texas and they are trimmed up nicely [ just saying ]
    for all those who say this plant is out of control yes of course it will be if you dont trim it up it even says so when
    you buy it…. READ instructions PEOPLE,LISTEN TO YOUR GARDNERS and NURSERYS.. mine are not out of control at all i had them for 3 years and plan to get more i also believe in native plants which i have also its about taking time to trim your plants that are supposed to be trimed so get off your asses and trim your plants and stop writing these stupid comintators about beautiful smelling plants that came from china yrs ago they are here to stay so get on with your life and go trim your bushes and thank jesus that you still have the ability to do so

  29. Terri says

    Thank you for your timely article. I have personally witness this plant running rampant in the wild. Here in middle Tennessee and several places in North Carolina. I have also communicated wiith Doug Tallemy author of ‘Bringing Naure Home’ and he has indicated it has been a problem in his own yard (where it wasn’t planted) in Pennsylvania and at his daughters home in Hawaii. Are we as homeowners able to monitor ourselves so that this plant does not get out of control? I don’t think so. It would take everyone who has this shrub to be responsible and sadly that hasn’t shown to work in our society. Should we listen to our garden centers? Do you think they would have a plant for sale on their shelves that’s misbehaving and tell you not to buy it or the constant maintenance to prune and maintain it responsibly? I don’t think so. Several people have indicated that this is a ‘must have’ plant for monarch nector to aide in their journey. However I have also heard others who are butterfly enthusiest say that my area isn’t on their flight path so that’s not a necessity and question the nutrition of the nector. Sure butterflies are all over the plant, but is it like privet (a highly catagory 1 invasive exotic) fruit birds goarge themselves on because the protein content is so low and the sugar content high they need more for energy? Privet fruit was described to me as given a choice of candy or protein to a child what are they going to choose – candy – but they will be back in short time for more to sustain them. The birds must gorge themselves and they they are laden with fruit and unable to fly If you mention Kudzu people recoil however it ‘only’ covers 2 million acres in the south east forest where privet covers 23 million acres in the south east forest (FIA data) and is still sold in the nursery trade. Finally I ask…. so what did the butterflies (which are native) do before the introduction of butterfly bush?? I believe they nectored on the native species.

  30. says

    I have to admit that butterfly bush is one which is difficult to give up. I haven’t seen it be invasive in my area (7b) but that doesn’t mean anything.

  31. says

    I know many of you have commented that you have had butterfly bushes for years and have seen no problem with them being invasive in your gardens. I know that you may think that since they are not taking over you home gardens, they do not pose a threat other places; however, this may be untrue. Plants are not only spread in a local area by pollination, but can be spread over vast areas due to pollination of insects. Your backyard may be safe, but the native forest around the corner may be in for some trouble. It is probably a safer bet to just steer clear of th butterfly bush and plant some native options instead! I know that native forest around the corner will appreciate it!

  32. John says

    ok so how about some one explaining what they mean by it taking over some native ecosystems.

    What are these bushes doing or stopping that is so bad?

  33. says

    Wow, so much interest in this discussion. The butterfly bush is somewhat tender for me in Central Ontario, Canada, and gardeners here treasure it. I would love to see it swapped out in gardens with natives, but this plant definitely has a stronghold in gardens here. I wonder what other fellow zone 5 and below gardeners thoughts are?

      • Glynis says

        Trying to buy the the white butterfly bush salviflorii in southern Ontario. Any ideas?
        I love the scented type. Reminds me of living in South Africa as a child

  34. Brian Jorgensen says

    I can confirm that in the woodland behind my house, which is on the outskirts of Liverpool, Merseyside, UK, the Butterfly Bush is highly invasive. It is growing wild and is rapidly taking over areas of the woodland.

  35. Rita says

    Hi there…. I live in FLORIDA….and was just about to order some of our BUtterflybush plants…UNTIL I read your “warning” about them being an “invasive plant’.
    Please tell me what you DO recommend for FLorida “TO ATTRACT BUTTERFLIES”!…because that is the main reason I was planning on getting BUtterfly Bush!
    Thank you for a quick reply. YVT….Rita


  1. […] A word of caution before you run out to plant your own butterfly bush: the plant is considered an invasive species in many parts of the state, as its endless blooms spread & drown on more fragile, native species. The problem has gone so far as to cause a ban of butterfly bush in Oregon*. […]

  2. […] entire streambank for miles along a stream in the Poconos of Pennsylvania…..read more about Invasive Butterfly Bush at Birds and Blooms Blog Share this:FacebookTwitterStumbleUponLinkedInReddit Filed Under: […]

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