Who’s Got the Button(bush)?

Buttonbush flowers and developing seed head


The children’s game called “Button, Button, Who’s Got the Button?” isn’t complicated. One child, carrying a hidden button, appears to transfer it into the waiting hands of every other child standing or sitting in a circle. Then, everyone tries to guess who actually received the button.

The flowers of buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis ) wouldn’t do so well for the game; they’re both too large and too delicate. Still, they’re as attractive as the plant is useful. Commonly found in wet open areas, low woods, thickets, swamps, river bottoms and stream or pond edges, buttonbush can live in up to 2 feet of water. This combination of blooming flowers and developing seed head was perched at the edge of a small lake near the Watson Rare Plant Preserve in east Texas; one of my own feet was planted in the water as I took the photo.

Though tolerant of shade, buttonbush blooms most profusely in full sun. The pincushion-like flowers — actually one-inch round ball-like clusters of white blooms — provide nectar for a variety of bees, butterflies, wasps, moths, and beetles, and an assortment of birds are known to visit. Its seeds are favored by waterfowl, and some mammals feed on its twigs.

Widely distributed across the eastern half of the United States, this easy-to-grow native makes a fine addition to gardens and landscapes where moist to wet conditions prevail, although some have found it capable of adapting to drier areas. Its fruits, deep red and sometimes glossy, will last throughout the fall.

Pond Creek Wildlife Management Area ~ Northwest Arkansas


Comments always are welcome.

59 thoughts on “Who’s Got the Button(bush)?

  1. I was familiar with neither the game nor the plant, so I got educated on two fronts by this post.

    1. ‘Who’s Got the Button?’ was a staple for rainy day recesses when I was in kindergarten. Some memories do linger. When the plant’s in bloom, there’s no missing it. The USDA map shows it reaching up into New England, including most of New York state, and introduced in Ontario, so it might be around your area. When it’s not in bloom or sporting those beautiful fruits, it could be easily missed; this was the first time I’d found it in the wild.

    1. When I found these, they just were beginning to bloom, and I didn’t notice the scent, but I did notice the number of bees that were visiting. A bee-keeping article I read makes note of the scent, saying, “When these plants are flowering, they’re sure to attract honey bees as well as butterflies and hummingbirds. When the bees are working this plant, the apiary often has a rich aroma at night.”

        1. I did manage to submit a sample of my photos to the NPSoT contest. I almost talked myself out of it, but got in under the wire. During the coming year, I’m going to have to roam a little more broadly; I only had photos from three ecoregions this year.

    1. I’d seen it in gardens and plant nurseries, but hadn’t come across it in the wild — at least, to my knowledge. I suspect that it’s been around, but without the flowers to catch my attention, I wasn’t familiar enough to pick out the shrub. When I came across those fruits in Arkansas, I didn’t have a clue what they were. It took some time for me to figure it out.

  2. Great pictures, Linda, and thanks for the info. Looks like a pretty flower, but – from what you write – I don’t think it would grow in our garden in the dry conditions of the Texas Hill Country.

    1. Some people who live in drier climates seem to have had some success with it, but they mentioned things like planting it around the house, where regular watering kept it healthy. In your spot, I think it might be more trouble than it’s worth, and I suspect it wouldn’t flourish. It’s such a butterfly magnet, though — it might be worth a phone call over to Wildseed Farm, to ask their opinion.

  3. I have seen those buttons down here and remember trying to photograph them on a windy day and waiting for a moment of stillness without success. Those white spikey ones remind me of my hairbrush with the brush tipped with a round colorful bit of plastic.

    1. That’s it — the hairbrush analogy. I knew there was something else that the styles reminded me of. I couldn’t pinpoint it, but you did. As for photographing on a windy day (doesn’t that sound like a poem title?, I know the frustrations of that endeavor. No wind bothered me here, but keeping my balance on a sloped bank was the trick of the day. This time, my luck held.

      1. Maybe next time I see one I will have more success. I tend to leave things in place rather than taking one home for a more controlled set up. I’ve heard of some people using boxes around living plant/bloom photo objects to give background and prevent the wind disturbance while they shoot outside. Although most things I see are not even situated well for that being high up and often on thin stalks. I just love fire flag blossoms and they can look like lavender drops of light in the right situation. But, the thin stalks do not take much wind at all to set in motion.

        It is fun when you share plants which live here too..and birds…gives a sense of connection over the miles… and the distribution of life.

        1. I’ve read about various gizmos for dealing with wind when photographing outdoors, but all of the boxes and clamps and such seem like more trouble than they’re worth. Even the box seems as though it would be a futile effort. Wind is tricky, and it goes where it will! Granted, it can be frustrating to try and deal with it, and there are days I don’t even try. But I’ve gotten better at it. Learning to “read” the wind through sailing has been quite a help, actually.

          I’d rather leave native plants in place, too: not only because it’s good to have them in their natural setting, but also because it feels wrong to kill one for the sake of a photograph. Flowers in a shop, or from a garden? That seems different. Your studio portraits of the flowers and other objects always have been glorious — there’s a real art to that kind of photography, too.

          1. Sometimes when I am after those uncooperative fire flag flowers, I’ll try and see how the wind is cycling like watching the pattern of waves coming to shore. And then snap in a still moment. The place I do that sometimes I am sure the other photographers around are wondering what I am pointing at and where the bird or gator is.

            1. I was confused for a minute. I thought you meant Thalia dealbata, the powdery alligator flag, which we have and which isn’t much affected by wind. When I looked up the fire flag, I saw in a flash why it could be a tough one to deal with — but so satisfying to capture, no doubt!

              A side note: when I searched for an image of the powdery alligator flag, I ran smack into Google’s new image search layout, which irritated me no end. I’ve been thinking about changing to DuckDuckGo anyway, just to lessen Google’s annoying tracking habits, and now I will, just because the Duck has a better image search function.

    1. Until I started reading about it, I had no idea there are cultivars. In case you missed it tucked into another comment, I found this really good article about the buttonbush and beekeeping. You may already have read the article, since it’s from a source that I can imagine you subscribing too, but it’s packed with details I found fascinating.

  4. I love this flower, but see it very rarely, only one place near Lake Ontario actually. And I think your closeups are excellent, especially the first one, that looks like some sort of cool space satellite installation.

    1. I may be more fond of that first photo than is warranted, but it really does amuse me. The more I look at it, though, the less sure I am whether that smooth little ball is coming or going. I need to consult with someone who really knows the plant’s life cycle to be sure that’s post- and not pre-bloom. But as for as the photo’s concerned, I like the “stacked stages,” whatever they are.

  5. I’ve never heard of a buttonbush! I guess I haven’t frequented enough swamps to see one, or more likely, if I’d seen it, I wouldn’t have recognized it. Thanks for doing the research!

    1. I’m sure I’ve walked right past it a few times, Debbie. The flowers make it easy to recognize, but when it’s all branches and leaves, it could be easy to mistake it for just another shrub. If you walk Dallas around any retention ponds, or other places where water features have been added to the landscape, you might see it. Because it’s such a favorite of butterflies, it seems that it’s gaining favor as a landscape plant. I gather that even the edge of a water garden can make it happy.

    1. I was surprised to learn how long its bloom time can be. That adds to its value for the pollinators, for sure. I remembered yesterday that they have it growing over at the Environmental Institute of Houston, on the UH Clear Lake campus. I need to stop by and give the leaves and such a good look, so I can recognize it again when it’s not in bloom.

    1. What a great reference, Tom. There are hints of an Escher-like pattern here. I’ll have to see if I can find a larger shrub in bloom that makes the pattern even more obvious.

  6. That mature seedhead looks like a candied apple embedded with cloves. The flower reminds me of the Alliums that bloom in Europe, except those are lavender.

    1. We stuck our cloves into oranges rather than apples, but, yes: it’s another great way of seeing these terrific flowers. They are suggestive of alliums, too. That’s a flower I didn’t know until recently. They’re favored for commercial plantings down here, especially in the medians of divided roads. I’ve never seen them growing, but there are some white cultivars that bear an even more striking resemblance.

    1. I thought the image has a bit of a solar system feel to it — the sort we made in grade school with an orange, a ping-pong ball, and a marble representing the relative sizes of the planets. I was pleased that I was able to line these up as I did. I had hoped to get a bit more in focus, but the lake kept me from moving any farther back from the shrub.

  7. A plant for all seasons. You definitely need some galoshes…and snake/alligator repellant? The last picture is heralding in fall ( like in 3 more months here – but it’s so Christmasy, too) Love the dual stage first picture – great find.
    (I had forgotten that game. Thanks)

    1. I have the boots, but in this case I could have used some waders. Then again, stepping into a lake with an unknown bottom and an indeterminate number of critters roaming around is best done in the company of other people.

      I’m so ready for fall. It’s not been nearly so hot this year as in the past, but the humid mornings and hot evenings aren’t exactly pleasant. I’m sure the furry ones aren’t any happier than the road crews and roofers. At least I can take a break when I want.

      1. No waders for you! You’d just get into trouble.
        Today has been horrid. August is never my favorite month, I really need to hibernate until it’s over.
        All those outdoor workers have my sympathy and a bit of admiration this time of year…they would survive.

        1. By the way: a sad note from the 146 construction. The pink triangular building at NASA 1 and 146 has been stripped of all its decorations: the mariachi band, the dophins, the bells. The only thing left are the cacti and such on top of the building. The end of an era approacheth.

    1. That’s interesting, about its relative unavailability. It’s easy to find here, at least in the native plant nurseries. It’s a plant that’s often featured in demonstration gardens, so people might be more aware of it, especially those who are committed to planting for pollinators.

  8. If it thrives in two feet of sweet water it would be a hard flower to propagate here in drought stricken Australia. We do have wetlands but they are mainly found in salt water estuaries. Any inland water gets used to irrigate cotton and rice.
    Lovely photo, Linda. I like Button Chrysanthemums.

    1. It’s interesting to hear you use the phrase “sweet water.” That’s a common phrase here, too — at least, in parts of Texas where I first heard it. In fact, there’s a town in Texas named Sweetwater. I’ve not looked up the history, but I certainly can guess at it. I confess to being surprised to learn that rice is grown there. I was a little surprised at need to irrigate cotton, too, but I don’t know much about growing cotton. In areas near to me where it fills the fields, they don’t irrigate because of plentiful rain, but up in the Texas Panhandle, it makes sense that it might be needed, and I just don’t know about it.

      I like the button chrysanthemums, too. Your straw flowers are equally appealing to me.

  9. Lots of little pistils, Linda. No wonder the bees love it. It looked vaguely familiar but I couldn’t remember seeing or photographing it. When I looked it up, I found that it is common to California’s Central Valley where I lived for ages. And the California Native Plant society said it was commonly used in revegetation projects in the Valley. Next time I am down there, I will have to search for it!

    1. That’s truly amusing, Curt. Plant blindness afflicts us all from time to time — I went for years without seeing a single white prickly poppy, but once I saw one, they “suddenly” were everywhere. Of course they’d been there the entire time, and I just didn’t see them. I’ll bet the next time you’re in the buttonbush neighborhood, you’ll notice them.

    1. They’re odd, but on the other hand, they have some friends, like the pincushion gaillardia and acacias. Apparently nature enjoys having a ball, too!

  10. Now I have heard of who’s got the button. Funny that I had not previously known of this game. I am familiar with the button bush and have seen it many times when I was an active birder. I really like the small shrub a lot and think that it is pretty and interesting.

    1. We had so many of those circle games when I was in grade school. Musical chairs and “telephone” probably are the most familiar, but they all were fun.

      I think the buttonbush is cute as can be. I’ve got a couple of photos I’ll post later that show the details really well — the individual flowers are so tiny. It’s amazing how nature arranges some of these beauties. I’ve read that butterflies have to hang upside down on them while nectaring, but it apparently works out just fine, for the flower and for the butterfly.

    1. This past weekend, I found a lily and some orchids in the same spot where this buttonbush was blooming. You’ll really like them — and probably will be as surprised as I was to learn that Texas has native orchids.

    1. They’re native all around Michigan, Jeanie — including your home town and up at the lake. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to find them at the ditch. They’re harder to spot when they aren’t blooming, but once those flowers appear, there’s no question what they are. It may be that you’ve missed their flowers because you spend less time at the ditch in the summer!

  11. What a fun way to photograph it, the flower behind the seed head – great idea! I was thrilled to find this oddity growing near the water on New York’s Staten Island, years ago. Nicely done!

    1. I saw this very bush today; the flowers are gone, and the seed heads are developing. They haven’t begun turning red yet, but that will come in time, and as many seed heads as there are, they might make for a nice photo.

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