There are many beautiful, ecologically valuable, and hardy native shrub species that are underutilized in designed landscapes. Two of these are buttonbush and northern bayberry.
Buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis), has one of the most unique and distinctive flowers of any shrub in New England. Its spherical, pincushion flowers are magnets for all kinds of pollinators, especially bumblebees and butterflies. It is also a larval host for several species of sphinx moths.
Cephalanthus typically grows in wetlands or at the edges of ponds. It can survive extended periods of inundation, making it a great centerpiece for a rain garden. But don't count buttonbush out if you don't have a wet spot in your landscape! It can be just as happy in hot, dry sites if it is properly established and doesn't have much competition. It can grow to be 8' or even 12' in the right spot, so it makes a great screen. Anyone still growing non-native butterfly bush (Buddleia), this is your replacement!
Northern bayberry (Myrica pensylvanica or Morella pensylvanica) is a plant many Cape residents will no doubt recognize. It is common along the coast because it grows well in dry, sandy soils and can tolerate salt-spray. But you can also find it in boggy, peaty soils. This may seem odd but isn't uncommon; plants adapted to challenging sites are frequently happy at both extremes.
Bayberry has glossy, leathery leaves that are aromatic when crushed. It is a dioecious species, and female shrubs will bear small grey fruits if they are successfully pollinated. This is more likely with a male plant in the vicinity, since bayberry is wind-pollinated. Their berries are an important food source for migrating birds, and have waxy coverings that can be used to make candles with a lovely aromatic fragrance. Like buttonbush, Myrica will do best in a site without much competition— so it is the perfect choice for a hot dry parking lot island or other tough spot.
Jessica Lubell from the University of Connecticut has done great work promoting these species and other hardy native shrubs to the nursery trade. You can find her detailed lists of recommended native shrubs on our Articles and Downloads page.
Two Shrubs Quite Different in Appearance but High in Ecological Value
Buttonbush is somewhat shade tolerant, and a common component of shrubby wetland areas in woodlands. When the flowers bloom in mid-summer they attract so many insects, especially butterflies, that the whole patch of shrubs seems to be aflutter, much the way a wildflower meadow looks in peak season.
While bayberry does not need large, showy flowers to attract pollinators (it is wind-pollinated, so inconspicuous flowers will do), the larvae of several species of moths and butterflies, including the red-band hairstreak (Calycopis cecrops), eat its leaves. Of interest to many gardeners, its aromatic foliage generally isn’t tasty to deer or rabbits.