I hope everybody enjoyed their Fourth of July celebrations over the past weekend. I always love this patriotic holiday full of family time, good ol’ American food, and of course, the fireworks. I love fireworks! The beautiful colors that paint the starry sky and the loud booms that echo into the night. This week I chose to write about Cephalanthus occidentalis, commonly called buttonbush, whose unique firework-like blooms can keep the celebratory spirit of the holidays alive through the summer.
Buttonbush flowers grow in clusters around white, ping-pong sized balls. This distinctive trait makes identifying buttonbush extremely simple. Once the flowers disappear, the ball turns into a brown fruit that holds its seeds. The leaves of the buttonbush tree are ovate, or egg-shaped. The base of the leaf is round and it comes to a narrow point at the tip. They grow in whorled groupings of 3 or 4 leaves around the stem, and the surface of the leaf has a glossy texture.
Cephalanthus occidentalis is a wetland shrub that thrives in riparian zones, shorelines and swampy areas where the soil is heavily saturated. Its root system grows quickly helping it stabilize stream banks and aid in erosion control. A key characteristic of buttonbush is its dense, swollen base that helps the plant stabilize on unpredictable ground. This shrub has also been seen growing in water that’s 4 ft deep, which provides an excellent protective habitat for tiny fish, frogs, salamanders and invertebrates. When it is growing out of water, buttonbush provides a roosting area for wood ducks. Song birds will build their nests in the thick foliage as well.
Waterfowl such as duck, geese and shorebirds will eat buttonbush seeds, while white-tailed deer love browsing on its foliage. Cephalanthus occidentalis is an excellent pollinator plant that attracts butterflies, bees, and hummingbirds to its nectar. You should use caution however with growing this plant in grazing pastures, as it has been reported to be poisonous to livestock. Humans should never ingest this plant as it contains the poison cephalathin which will induce vomiting, paralysis, and convulsions.
That being said, the Native Americans found several ways to use buttonbush medicinally. They would boil the bark to extract beneficial components and then use the water for eye washes, anti-diarrheal agents, skin astringents, and to relieve fever and headaches. They would also chew on the bark to alleviate the pain of a toothache.
Republished with permission of the Goldthwaite Eagle. Written by Savannah Lane.