Why does my Butterfly Bush look dead?

Posted By on Aug 3, 2006 |

Good afternoon, folks. My name is Ebbett Monroe, and I’m one of the garden “answer guys.”  I think most everyone in Customer Service knows me, but some of you other folks might not. I hide out on the second floor in a cubicle in the corner, and the phone pretty much keeps me tied to my desk 8 to 5. If it weren’t for that vending machine down by the loading dock, I would have perished long ago!

They call me a horticulturist, but back when I was in school, if you liked studying plants you had two choices of major: botany, which meant looking at little pieces of ‘em through a microscope in the science lab; or agriculture, which meant growing ‘em on daddy’s farm until you got up the necessary to buy your own piece of land. Turned out, I never got to choose between the two. Uncle Sam rounded me up for the Korean Conflict, and before I could turn around, I was in Japan ordering supplies for the troops. Most of my Air Force buddies couldn’t wait to get home, but I spent all my leaves hitching rides into the countryside and mountains of Japan, which were full of the kind of trees and plants I’d never seen anywhere else before. That’s when I figured out studying plants could be much more than cutting them up or growing them to eat. So when I got out of the Service, I washed up in San Francisco and began working in nurseries up and down the coast.

Long story short, I’m retired from one career now and enjoying another answering folks’ gardening questions here in South Carolina. Well, I say “here,” but at Wayside we get calls from all over, of course. And now Mr. Johnson, our head honcho, has asked me to write some of the questions and answers down so everyone can read them and give better service to folks calling in. So here goes nothing:

Why does my butterfly bush look dead?

I wish I could tell you that it’s playing possum, and if it were a Daphne, that might just be true. But this is probably a case of, if it looks like a duck and walks like a duck and quacks like a duck . . .

But maybe I’m getting ahead of myself. There’s a chance your Buddleia is just very starved for water. If that’s the case, it will look about as ratty as last Thursday’s leftovers, but will revive once it gets hydrated again. Which you should do pronto, with a good heavy soaking and then maybe a soaker hose to keep it going until this ungodly hot weather finally passes.

You see, we tell folks that this or that plant is highly drought-tolerant, and they are, meaning they don’t up and die the first time they get a little dry. But that’s not to say they LIKE it. And a young plant that’s been in your garden less than a year or two can’t take much stress like that at all. The root system just isn’t developed enough yet. If you can think of “drought-tolerant” as meaning “survival at any price,” you’ve got the hang of it.

Now, Buddleia’s an interesting beast when it comes to survival. I’ll never forget my older brother Marshall coming home after WWII and talking about the butterfly bushes growing out of bombed-out buildings in England. Seems they were the first species to take hold again, and I bet those long lavender flower stalks were like flags of hope after all the destruction. They MUST have been something, for Marshall to notice them. He said the Brits called them “Flowers of the Ruins.”

Which makes it sound like they’ll grow anywhere, and that’s not far from the truth, at least here in the South. Buddleia is native to the Far East, of course, but like so many immigrants, it finds life a lot more comfortable in its new land. They definitely can become invasive, which makes it all the more frustrating that yours appears to have up and died on you. Let’s see what else might be killing it.

If not enough water isn’t the culprit, too much water probably is. Poor drainage will kill a Buddleia, as it will so many other garden plants. You can till the soil, amend it within an inch of its life, and water religiously, but if the soil doesn’t drain fast enough, the roots will rot right out. That’s why whenever we get a hold of a plant like Louisiana Iris or Porcupine Grass, we start bragging about it “liking wet feet.” Fixing the soil to make it drain better isn’t the easiest thing you’ll ever do, and choosing a plant that doesn’t mind bogginess is often the simplest solution.

Now, it’s possible for Buddleias to come under attack from pests like Japanese Beetles and the like, but usually this shrub attracts so many good bugs that the bad ones get gobbled up. Either that or they go to “better” plants to do their damage. Just plant a Buddleia near a Rose if you want to see this principle in action! So I’d be surprised if pests or disease got your butterfly bush.

If its misery is still a mystery, take comfort in something I learned long ago, working at a retail nursery in Santa Barbara County. The Mediterranean climate out there is ideal for so many plants, and I came across hundreds of serious, skilled home gardeners who could grow amazing things. But get to talking to them, and every one of them had some “simple” plant that wouldn’t grow for them, no matter what they tried. One lady who started Pelargoniums from seed, took cuttings, eventually began propagating them herself couldn’t get a patch of Zinnias to make it past the seedling stage to save her life. Another fellow, an Orchid grower by profession, had never harvested more than a few poor squash from his huge, perfectly-prepared vegetable bed. So if your Buddleia won’t grow, try another one somewhere else in the garden, or better yet, tackle a really difficult plant in that same spot. Chances are it will grow like Topsy for you.

Well, I believe next time I need to cut the chatter and come to the point, because I also want to say a few words about Hydrangea care, Peonies growing, and pruning Azaleas. But right now I’ve got two lines on the phone flashing, so I’ll sign off for today.