Updated Oct 11, 2022
Butterfly bushes are famous for their ability to attract butterflies, but are they bad for butterflies? Some would argue no, but many criticize butterfly bushes because of their potential negative impact on the environment and ecosystem. Some experts also say that butterfly bushes can hurt the long-term health and growth of butterfly populations, as well as native plants in the area.
This article will address everything you need to know about butterfly bushes and answer the following questions:
Gardeners love butterfly bushes because they quickly attract butterflies, hummingbirds, and other pollinators to their gardens. They also have a long bloom time from spring to fall, depending on the location. In addition, butterfly bushes produce many flowers, which are beautiful to witness.
These shrubs easily grow in many climates because they require very little maintenance and tolerate poor soil conditions. They mostly need access to full sunlight and an annual pruning, which some gardeners even skip, and the plant still continues to thrive.
All of this may make the butterfly bush sound like the perfect drought-tolerant plant, but there are many strong reasons why experts and gardeners dislike this plant. Let’s get into those reasons and the effect that butterfly bushes have on butterflies and the environment next.
Overall, butterfly bushes provide ample nectar, which is excellent for pollinators like butterflies. The plant grows many flowers and spreads quickly, creating access to copious amounts of nectar for butterflies and bees.
However, some argue that butterfly bushes are actually bad for butterflies over time because they are an invasive species. Due to their fast reproduction, this plant can spread and snuff out other native shrubs, which provide food for caterpillars. Caterpillars cannot usually feed on butterfly bushes, so butterflies need to lay their eggs on other plants. However, if the butterfly bush has invaded the area and destroyed other plants in its wake, this leaves the butterflies with fewer choices to lay their eggs. As a result, the butterfly population can dramatically decrease in areas where butterfly bushes are prevalent.
So, while butterfly bushes seem like a great idea for attracting and supporting butterflies in your area and your swallowtail garden, they are actually more of a nuisance to the butterfly’s life cycle. The short-term effects of having butterfly bushes around can lead to increased numbers of butterflies hanging around your property. However, the species’ invasiveness can hurt the butterfly population in the long run.
Butterfly bushes are notorious for being fast breeders. A Longwood Gardens study discovered that a single flower spike produced over 40,000 seeds, which allows the plant to disperse seeds quickly and at a large volume.
The non-native butterfly bush seeds stay viable for up to five years in soil, making getting rid of the plant difficult. In addition, butterfly bush seeds are lightweight and “winged,” so they travel far distances easily, allowing the plant to spread.
While great for pollinators, butterfly bushes are an environmental concern because of the plant’s high reproductive success. Butterfly bushes frequently overcome and replace native shrubs and plants, making them an invasive species.
Due to their lightweight, long-lasting seeds, butterfly bushes quickly reproduce. They also thrive in many conditions, including natural areas with plenty of sunshine and well-drained soil. Butterfly bushes can thrive alongside riverbanks, wood edges, roadsides, and inside fields, which are typically where native shrubs grow. The Northwest and the Northeast United States have even deemed the butterfly bush an invasive pest because of its ability to invade and suppress other plants from growing.
Another negative impact of butterfly bushes is that no native caterpillars or larvae eat butterfly bush leaves. Although they create plenty of nectar for pollinators, they won’t make the right conditions for butterflies to lay eggs since their larvae can’t feed on the butterfly bush leaves. As a result, butterflies can only feed on the bushes but aren’t able to reproduce in that area when butterfly bushes are the only shrub around, which frequently happens since they are an invasive species. This can reduce butterfly populations in regions where butterfly bushes are prominent.
Another negative effect of the butterfly bush is that it can distract butterflies from pollinating native plants in their habitat because they can become distracted by the copious amounts of nectar the butterfly bushes produce.
If you already have a butterfly bush or are set on planting butterfly bushes, here are some ways that you can prevent butterfly bushes from invading other plants:
Care tips for your butterfly bush:
Butterfly bushes will continue to grow back each year, especially in the South, where they act like a drought-tolerant perennial. You can expect the top of the plant to die but grow back in the spring with new shoots and flowers.
What are other options if you’d still like to attract butterflies but aren’t keen on planting a butterfly bush?
For starters, you can choose non-invasive varieties of the butterfly bush. Certain butterfly bush species have been bred to create fewer seeds, reducing their chances of becoming invasive plants. Butterfly bush hybrids, such as ‘Orchid Beauty’ and ‘Summer Rose’ produce far fewer seeds, while hybrids like ‘Miss Molly’ and ‘Miss Violet’ are less fertile. You can consult this list of Oregon state-approved sterile butterfly bushes for further information on sterile cultivars.
However, non-invasive butterfly bush species still don’t address the lack of caterpillar friendly food. Consider some of the following options if you are looking to attract and support the butterfly population in your garden.
Some of the most attractive nectar-producing plants for butterflies include:
If you’re looking to cultivate caterpillar friendly food plants, consider the following plants:
Succession planting involves planning your garden out so that you always have something blooming at all times. People love butterfly bushes because they have a long bloom time, which reduces the work and planning needed to have plants blooming consistently in your garden. However, butterflies won’t be able to lay eggs and produce caterpillars if the only plant in your garden is butterfly bushes, so consider succession planting instead.
Plan your garden out thoroughly in the fall and plant spring-flowering blooms in fall with staggered bloom times. When you have flowers bloom in early spring, late spring, and throughout the summer, butterflies will have consistent nectar throughout the spring and summer. Other types of plants will also allow them to reproduce, increasing the butterfly population in your area over time.
While beautiful, butterfly bushes, like the summer lilac, are less than ideal plants to have around due to their invasive growth. Butterfly bushes reproduce quickly and can easily smother other native species in your garden. They can also quickly spread outside your garden to other areas due to their flight-friendly, lightweight seeds. Before planting a butterfly bush, weigh the pros and cons of this invasive species. It can be difficult to entirely remove them from your garden because the seeds are viable for up to five years which promotes significant new growth.
Consider planting one of the many alternatives to butterfly bushes that are just as attractive to pollinators. Many wonderful native shrubs will look just as nice in your garden and be alluring to pollinators. In addition, many native plants provide caterpillars with food, increasing the butterfly population in your area.
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