- In the Wild - Button willow - great for water gardens
By Judith Pannebaker BCC Editor
Cephalanthus occidentalis has more common names than Bubba Blue had recipes for shrimp in the 1994 film, "Forrest Gump." Among them are button willow, pinball, buttonbush, common buttonbush, honey bells, Rosa de Juan, jazmin, honeyballs, Spanish pincushion, globeflowers, river brush, swampwood, crane willow, little snowball, box, button-wood, pond-dogwood, uvero and crouperbrush. Whew! Button willow it is!
This deciduous shrub, which is described as a tall shrub or small tree, is an inhabitant of low areas with "extra moisture" - something there's been a dearth of in the Hill Country of late. Normally found along streambanks, button willow grows very well in wet soils, including flood conditions and shallow standing water.
The plant is also naturalized in woodland areas, pond margins and in moist forest understories.
Button willow does well in full sun to part shade and can adapt to a wide range of soils - except dry ones.
Button willow's showy white flowers bloom from June to September and resemble a round ball with small short "pins" over the surface. Tiny, tubular, five-lobed, fragrant flowers appear in dense, spherical, long-stalked flower heads that reach a diameter of 1.5 inches. Long, projecting styles give the flower heads a distinctively pincushion-like appearance.
Button willow's long-lasting flowers are attractive to bees, butterflies, other nectar insects and hummingbirds. Bees, of course, turn the nectar into a delectable honey. Also, white-tail deer browse the foliage.
Eventually the flower heads mature into hard spherical ball-like fruits consisting of multiple tiny two-seeded nutlets, which usually persist throughout the winter. The mature fruit serve as a food source for birds and is eaten by at least 25 birds, mostly water birds.
Glossy bright oval green leaves - up to six inches - appear in pairs in late spring.
Ornamentally, low maintenance button willow is attractive in well-watered landscapes, such as certain native plant gardens, around ponds or large water gardens. It can also be used as a shrub border.
Liabilities include a short life span and a tendency to sprawl. To keep it looking good, this plant requires periodic rejuvenation pruning. This can be done in early spring, but, if plants become unmanageable, they may be cut back nearly to the ground in early spring to revitalize.
Button willow can be propagated by seeds that are sown fresh and need no additional treating. Seeds should be gathered in late summer or early fall before the heads dry and fall apart. However, seeds can have a low germination rate.
Button willow can also be propagated by planting cuttings in moist, sandy soil.
(Sources: www.missouribotanicalgarden.org, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cephalanthus_occidentalis, www.wildflower.org, www.fs.fed.us/database/feis/plants/shrub/cepocc/all.html, www.hort.uconn.edu/plants, www.fcps.edu, www.finegardening.com and http://aggie-horticulture.tamu.edu)