Thursday, June 7, 2012

a tale of two buttonbushes

marshy lake edges are perfect natural habitat for
buttonbush, shown here on the right, set apart from the lake edge
proper by a swath of marsh grasses

Last post, we had a look at Gardenias, the queen genus of the plant family Rubiaceae. Known alternately as the Madder family, the Bedstraw family, or the Coffee family, the Rubiaceae is a large one, containing 450 genera and 6500 species worldwide. Especially in the horticultural world, it is a sexy family indeed, featuring many fine-formed, glossy-leaved shrubs.

Let's have a closer look at a couple of more representatives from the Rubiaceae that make excellent ornamental garden plants down here: buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis) and Chinese buttonbush (Adina rubella).

Buttonbush is a wetland native throughout much of eastern North America, as well as parts of the midwestern and southwestern U.S. Here in Louisiana it is a common inhabitant in just about every swamp and lake edge in just about every parish. Ecologically, it functions as a much-desired nectar plant for bees, butterflies, etc. Its main claim to fame in the bird world is as perhaps the most critically important natural nesting substrate (platform) for mid-sized wading birds such as Little-blue Heron, Cattle Egret, Great Egret, and others. Size-wise buttonbush ranges 6-15' in height. It is almost always multi-stemmed, and produces a spreading, umbrella-like crown. Its leaves are large, medium-pale green, and satin-finished.

native buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis) blooms & foliage
blooms are between ping-pong and golf balls in size
foliage is at least 4" long

In garden settings, I include at least one “specimen” buttonbush in just about every design I execute – especially those with low-elevation spots that naturally attract moisture. In such cases, I “limb-up” the plant's stems, removing all lower branches up to a height of at least 6' thus exposing the plant's curvy, serpentine, pale-gray stems. This also aids in developing a denser-foliaged and more “bloomiferous” crown. Give this plant as much sun and as much moisture as possible.

The second featured buttonbush – Chinese buttonbush (aka “glossy adina”) – is similar to our native, but is visually far more refined in texture, due primarily to its very tiny, dark-green, and lusterously glossy leaves. Its blooms are also way smaller and more numerous than our native species, and with a flesh-pink tinge and delicate fragrance to boot. Like our native, Chinese buttonbush grows 6-15' and is spreading-crowned in form; but it normally produces many more stems than does our native buttonbush – giving it more of a “large shrub” (as opposed to “small tree” with native buttonbush) habit. Butterflies and bumblebees love the blooms.

Chinese buttonbush (Adina rubella) blooms & foliage
blooms are marble-sized

(pardon the stupid focus, ya'll....just concentrate to the right side of the frame)
[attempted] close-up of Adina rubella's fragrant pink blooms