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Butterfly Bush – Why You Shouldn’t Grow It & What To Grow Instead

A butterfly bush is covered with Monarch butterflies.
While the butterfly bush is attractive, it’s not the best choice for your garden.

Butterfly bush, also known as buddleja, is well known (as the name suggests) for attracting butterflies.

One of its benefits is it can grow very well in many different areas and climate zones. It grows very quickly and produces large, attractive flower heads in abundance over the summer months.

Those who do have it in their gardens will already be aware of this plant’s attractiveness to butterflies. 

Unfortunately, it grows so well in certain areas that it’s an invasive species.

It has broadly naturalized in many areas outside its native Asian range. In some areas, this can pose a problem. Since it thrives and spreads so rapidly, it outcompetes native species like willows.

A purple butterfly bush.
This popular plant often competes against native species.

In the US, it’s considered invasive in a number of states. Some, like Oregon, have banned sales of the plant. Sterile varieties (those which do not set viable seed) have been developed. And you can buy these options even in Oregon and other states where common butterfly bush is banned. 

If you really want to grow butterfly bush in your garden, look for sterile varietals such as ‘Lo and Behold’ and ‘Flutterby Grande’. 

You can purchase a Lo and Behold butterfly bush from here on Amazon.

And if you already have butterfly bush in your garden, make sure that you deadhead the blooms as soon as they are fading so the seeds cannot form and spread.

The reason the butterfly bush can be such a troublesome invasive plant is that the seeds are produced abundantly and spread quickly. They spread not only within your own garden but also in the surrounding area. 

But remember, butterfly bush or buddleja is not the only plant you can grow that will look great and attract butterflies to your garden. 

Other Shrubs to Grow Instead of Butterfly Bush

If you’re gardening in the US, some native shrubs that are great for butterflies are:

A firebush with several butterflies on it.
Firebush is an excellent native alternative to a butterfly bush.
  • Buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis)
  • Dogwood (Cornus spp.)
  • Firebush (Hamelia patens)
  • Flowering Currant (Ribes sanguineum)
  • Glossy Abelia (Abelia x grandiflora)
  • Leatherleaf (Chamaedaphne calyculata)
  • Meadowsweet (Spiraea alba and spiraea latifolia)
  • Mountain Laurel (Kalmia latifolia)
  • New Jersey Tea (Ceanothus americanus)
  • Ninebark (Physocarpus opulifolius)
  • Pussy Willow (Salix discolor)
  • Sargent’s Cranberry (Viburnum sargentii)
  • Shrubby Cinquefoil (Potentilla fruticosa)
  • Spicebush (Lindera benzoin)
  • Sweet Pepperbush/ Summersweet (Clethra alnifolia)
  • Viburnums (native species)
  • Virginia Sweetspire (Itea virginica)
A pussy willow can be a good alternative to the butterfly bush.
Everyone’s favorite harbinger of spring – the pussy willow – will attract butterflies too.

Crucially, and unlike butterfly bush, many of the above can also be useful for caterpillars and larval forms of butterflies and moths.

Remember, not all of the above will be native to your particular area. And not all may thrive in your particular garden. Check with your local agriculture extension office to find good native options for your area.

White meadowsweet in bloom.
Consider planting meadowsweet to attract butterflies to your yard.

Choose shrubs that are suited not only to your climate but also to the soil, light-levels, and other micro-climate conditions in your garden. For a successful garden, it’s vital to choose the right plants for the right places. 

While it’s best to choose plenty of native plants for your garden, it’s also possible to carefully select non-native species that are not invasive in your area. 

Some non-native shrubs to consider as particularly good nectar sources for butterflies are:

  • Bluebeard (Caryopteris x clandonensis)
  • Deutzia
  • Hebes
  • Lilac (Syringa vulgaris)
  • Weigela
A lilac in bloom.
Although not a native plant, lilacs are a good alternative to butterfly bush.

Outside the US:

In the UK/Europe, some native shrubs/ small trees that are great for native butterfly species (throughout their life-cycles, not just for nectar) include:

A guelder rose in full bloom, a good choice instead of a butterfly bush.
For those outside the U.S. there are plenty of butterfly bush alternatives, such as guelder rose.
  • Alder buckthorn
  • Blackberries/ brambles
  • Currants
  • Dogwood (Cornus)
  • Dog Rose (Rosa canina) (and other roses)
  • Elder
  • Gorse
  • Guelder rose (Viburnum opulus)
  • Hawthorn
  • Purging buckthorn
  • Willows (Salix)

Of course, there are also plenty of other shrubs that will provide a food source for butterflies, whether or not they’re native in your area. 

Other Butterfly-Friendly Plants

If you’re looking for alternatives to butterfly bush, however, it’s important to remember that there are plenty of other types of plants that are excellent for attracting butterflies to your garden. 

In addition to planting alternative butterfly bushes in your garden, you should also plant:

Apple blossom.
Don’t forget fruit trees if you want to provide both food and shelter for butterflies.
  • Fruit trees – which have nectar-filled blossoms. Fallen fruits will also serve as a food source for butterflies. Trees also provide shelter and a place for butterflies and moths to overwinter.
  • Climbers – ivy, roses, etc.. (which can provide nectar when there isn’t much around, and also serves as a habitat for egg-laying). 
  • Nectar-rich flowers – including plenty of perennial flowers, as well as annuals or biennials.
  • Perennial herbs (many perennial herbs are great for attracting butterflies – lavender, rosemary, thyme, marjoram, hyssop and more are all great examples.)

You should also allow weeds to grow in your garden. Some weeds, such as stinging nettles, and milkweed for example, are excellent butterfly-friendly plants. 

A monarch caterpillar munches on a milkweed plant.
Milkweed is anything but a weed when it comes to attracting butterflies.

Even if you choose to grow only native plants, you shouldn’t be limited in how beautiful and productive your garden can be.

No matter where you live, there is a huge range of beautiful and useful trees, shrubs, flowers, herbs, and other edibles to grow in your garden. By avoiding invasive species like butterfly bush, you can create an ecologically-sound paradise for you, and for the butterflies and other wildlife. 

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Elizabeth Waddington

Elizabeth Waddington is a writer, permaculture designer and green living consultant. She is a practical, hands-on gardener, with a background in philosophy: (an MA in English-Philosophy from St Andrews University). She has long had an interest in ecology, gardening and sustainability and is fascinated by how thought can generate action, and ideas can generate positive change.

In 2014, she and her husband moved to their forever home in the country. She graduated from allotment gardening to organically managing 1/3 of an acre of land, including a mature fruit orchard,which she has turned into a productive forest garden. The yield from the garden is increasing year on year – rapidly approaching an annual weight in produce of almost 1 ton.

She has filled the rest of the garden with a polytunnel, a vegetable patch, a herb garden, a wildlife pond, woodland areas and more. Since moving to the property she has also rescued many chickens from factory farms, keeping them for their eggs, and moved much closer to self-sufficiency. She has made many strides in attracting local wildlife and increasing biodiversity on the site.

When she is not gardening, Elizabeth spends a lot of time working remotely on permaculture garden projects around the world. Amongst other things, she has designed private gardens in regions as diverse as Canada, Minnesota, Texas, the Arizona/California desert, and the Dominican Republic, commercial aquaponics schemes, food forests and community gardens in a wide range of global locations.

In addition to designing gardens, Elizabeth also works in a consultancy capacity, offering ongoing support and training for gardeners and growers around the globe. She has created booklets and aided in the design of Food Kits to help gardeners to cool and warm climates to grow their own food, for example. She is undertaking ongoing work for NGO Somalia Dryland Solutions and a number of other non governmental organisations, and works as an environmental consultant for several sustainable companies.

Visit her website here and follow along on her Facebook page here.