Pruning butterfly bushes

Butterfly bushes do not need to be pruned except to control size

By JOE LAMP’L

I have a question about my butterfly bush. I have read not to prune it back until early spring, and then again I hear to prune it to the ground in the winter. What is the best approach? Also do Butterfly bushes need to be pruned every year and is it too late? We pruned our bushes last year and they were beautiful but took forever to get tall again. I would like them to fill an area in our yard and would like to know the best way to care for them.

Regarding your butterfly bush (Buddlia), you are safe to prune it at either time as long as it is late winter moving into early spring. As a matter of fact you can prune them any time of the year except early winter. The reason being, the stems are hollow and any water that accumulates in the stem and subsequently freezes will cause the wood to split. That’s not a good thing. Butterfly bushes bloom on new wood so as long as you have plenty of sun light, you’ll get lots of blooms throughout the summer by pruning in the spring.

Butterfly bushes do not need to be pruned every year. In fact, you only need to prune them when they get too large for the space allotted. But since butterfly bushes only bloom on new growth many gardeners prune them severely each spring to encourage lots of new growth and lots of flowers.

I would advise that you prune this shrub back to twelve or twenty-four inches high. That way, you retain some of the growth from last year which will fill in that area of your yard more quickly and provide you with plenty of flowers. Remove the spent blooms periodically during the summer to encourage additional new growth and subsequent flowers until frost.

If they have already started to leaf out, you can still prune them back some, but if you prune below new shoots, it will take much longer for it to fill out this year. A fertilizer application in March or April and again in June or July will help to encourage growth. Use a tablespoon of 10-10-10 for each foot of height and sprinkle it around the shrub out to the drip line.

About

Joe Lamp'l is the Host and Executive Producer of the award winning PBS television series Growing A Greener World. Off camera, Joe dedicates his time to promoting sustainability through his popular books, Compost Confidential blog, podcast series, and nationally syndicated newspaper columns. Follow Joe on Google+

Comments

  1. Elise finland says

    Hello,
    I live on the south east coast (right on the water) in the states. My butterfly bushes were about 10 years old, we had been trimming them here and there you know the usual. our bushes just got to be huge so we cut them to the ground. this was in the end of November. all of our other flowers have started growing back but our butterfly bushes have not… Do you think they will?
    Thank you,
    Elise

    • says

      Hard to say Elise. May be too early but keep an eye out for new growth. November (fall) is not a good time to do heavy pruning. Time will tell. If they don’t come back, it was likely the timing of severe pruning. Although they can take it in late winter, early spring, pruning also stimulates new growth. If new growth occurs and then gets nipped by the cold, it can cause damage to the rest of the plant. In winter, when the plant is already dormant, you avoid that risk.

  2. Tiffany says

    I aggressively cut back a badly cared for (or, “left natural” depending on how one sees it) butterfly tree bush last November from about 5 feet to about 12″ in Philadelphia region. This winter was terrible! What are the chances it made it? Am a little worried because it appeared very old. I was only trying to help! Thanks!

    • says

      Keep an eye on it Tiffany. November (fall) is not a good time to prune, especially severely. But now all you can do is wait to see what happens. Look for new growth soon. Give it time though. Buy mid-May, you should see new signs of budding at least if it’s going to make it. Got my fingers crossed for you.

  3. sherry richmond says

    I would like to know what kind of fertilizer to use on my butterfly bushes , also my hydrangea do not seem to get flowers what to do

    • says

      Use an all purpose balanced blend of fertilizer Sherry. You can find organic or synthetic options (like 10-10-10) at your local nursery or garden center. I like to use compost too. The key to a healthy, blooming butterfly bush is to prune it back in later winter or early spring and provide full sun or as close to that as you can get. The less sun you have, the less blooms too.
      For your hydrangeas, if you are pruning, make sure you are pruning at the right time. Some varieties produce flowers on new wood, like Hydrangea paniculata, while others produce their flowers on old wood, so pruning would need to take place in the previous summer to get blooms the following year. The classic mophead hydrangea is a classic example of this. Also if they are in too much shade, that could be a contributing factor. Although hydrangeas are more shade tolerant, they still benefit from several hours of morning sun at least to perform their best.

  4. Angie Printup says

    Joe, we have a butterfly TREE. It’s about 8 feet tall and very bushy at the top and top heavy where it’s hanging down to the ground. Had it about 5 years now. We live in zone 7. I’s now 2nd week of March. Can we just cut off all the bushyness down to about 5 feet and let it re-grow? I’m so afraid I’ll stunt it’s growth but it’s more of a tree than a bush but I need to thin it out some. :-)

    • says

      Don’t be afraid to prune your butterfly bush aggressively Angie. They are remarkably forgiving and will allow you to tame its shape. If you have lots of sun, you’ll have lots of blooms this summer from the new growth. Do what you need to do and now is a good time. Let us know how it turns out later this summer.

  5. Belinda says

    Hello. I planted a dwarf butterfly bush last summer and it did very well but its laying down on the ground. It’s about 4 feet in diameter and only 18 inches high. It should only grow to 3 feet tall but what should I do to get it to grow up and not out?

    Thanks for all the great info!
    Belinda

    • says

      I would see how it does this year since you only planted it last summer. If it again only grows to about 18 inches then I’d say that’s all it’s going to do on it’s own. If it’s cultural habit is to grow low and out, which it sounds like it is, then the only way to change that is to force the growth up with staking or some sort of support system like one would use for a tomato cage. I doubt that’s what you want! But again, it may not be in the cards for this dwarf plant’s growth habit to go up. The other suggestion would be to prune the shrubs branches that are growing out next to buds of branches that appear to grow inward or up. By removing outward branching close to buds or branching that are headed vertical, then you will promote that growth instead. Good luck.

  6. Karen Baumgarten says

    You mention that late winter is when best to prune. I live in Southern Oregon where it can freeze into early May. So, when should I prune my butterfly bush, which is in a half barrel, to avoid the danger of splitting the wood?

  7. Tari says

    Hi, so happy I found this site, my question is that I live in an apartment and outside is a big beautiful butterfly bush, actually one large one and directly across the sidewalk are 2 more. So for the past 5 years that I have lived here, the landlord has had to prune it every year, to make room for the sidewalk, the bushes kinda grew together creating an archway. Today, in January, my landlord had it pruned again, this time, 2 of the ones we severely cut down to the ground, making my heart so sad. They kept the larger one up and just trimmed up it real good. My question is will the others grow back? In reading your posts it sounds like they will, but I’m just so sad about it., it was such a beautiful home for birds and pretty to look at?

    • says

      Sorry to hear that Tari. You’ll know later this summer if the severely pruned butterfly bushes will grow back to their full glory. They can and time will tell. It’s rarely a good idea to prune so severely but in this case, it does have the potential to rebound. Keep us posted please.

  8. Andy says

    Hi Joe

    I’m in zone 7 and have a butterfly bush that is over 6 feet tall, the lower part is predominantly bare branches and the top half leafy. I would like to prune it by 50% or more (cut back more than the rule of thumb) in January or February so that it will have growth on the lower part and the top. Is that considered doable to promote growth? Or will drastic pruning stunt the plants growth or worse scenario annihilate the plant.

    • says

      It’s doable Andy, at least with butteryfly Bush. They’re very tolerant of pruning. Do while dormant and you should be fine. Also, sounds like you might have some tree canopy shade competing for sunlight? At least the look you describe sounds as such. If so, consider limbing up any overhanging branches to let in more light. Otherwise your plan should be fine. Good luck.

  9. nathan says

    I bought 2 mini butterfly bushes the ones that dont grow tall put them in about sept, they have tons of flowers even still blooming now nov 8 do i need to cut the flowers off deadhead them? or just let them go? someone at the garden center said to deadhead the spent flowers to the first big green leaf?

    • says

      You can do that Nathan but at this point, I’d wait until late winter or early spring. Better to prune when plant is in full dormancy or just coming out of it. Pruning now could induce new growth right before cold weather arrives and you don’t want that. The good news is, butterfly bush responds well to heavy pruning and blooms on new wood. You should have lots more flowers next summer.

  10. Bethany Ostenson says

    We moved into a house here in Northeast Tennessee this summer with three huge butterfly bushes. They are too big for their space and need to be moved desperately. Should we move them now or wait till early spring? If we move them now is it okay to prune them back as well? They are so tall I am afraid that we will not be able to move them without pruning them but I see that the best time to prune is late winter.

    • says

      Now (fall) is def. the best time to transplant. I would make this the priority. If you find that you need to prune now also, I think it would be ok. If you can wait until early spring, that would be best. However, in this case, you make have no choice and I think your plants will still be fine by next summer. Since we’re coming into the dormant time of year anyway, your butterfly bushes will work on re-establishing their root system first. then new growth, so if you need to prune now also, go ahead. Just do as little as necessary and let you plants establish in their new home first.

  11. Casey says

    My husband decided to prune our butterfly bush without asking! We live in zone 6 and I am concerned about the bush dying. Is there anything I can do to lessen the chance? It is not completely to the ground.

    • says

      Nothing you can do now but make sure the soil stays moist and if you don’t have mulch under the plant now, go ahead and add a 3 inch layer around the base out to the drip line. That will help in a number of ways but mainly will reduce overall environmental stress. They are forgiving plants when it comes to pruning so lets hope this story has a happy ending. Good luck.

  12. Paula Parker says

    We purchased a home in Western North Carolina about a year ago, with a beautiful well developed butterfly garden. The home had not been lived in for some time and the gardens were begun in 2005, and not well tended for a long time. My question is, as the butterfly bushes now appear to be trees with 3 inch limbs, how much can be pruned safely. They have overtaken the garden and all the plantings beneath.

    • says

      The general rule of thumb when it comes to pruning is to never prune more than one third of the total volume at a time. But, butterfly bush is one tough plant and very forgiving if you prune, even severely, at the proper time. You have two options. If you want to try and do this all at once, you can take it town to the desired height in late winter. By summer you should have lots of new growth and soon after, new flowers. You do run a small chance of losing your bush depending on its age and other conditions. But since you mentioned how much could your prune safely, I’d take the three year approach. Again, in late winter, cut 1/3 of the bush, down to the desired height. In year two, take another third, and in year three, the last third. By then, you’ll have a totally renewed bush and a more manageable height. As you prune, just try and balance your cuts so the bush still look respectable and you’ll have the best of both worlds. Good luck.

  13. Kira says

    Hi, we just purchased a house that has a butterfly bush that needs some trimming. It is about 7-9 feet tall and about 3-4 feet wide. We live in ohio. When is the best time to trim it down?

    • says

      The best time to prune it back is late winter or early spring. I wouldn’t do it now since new growth will likely occur as a result of your pruning and there’s not enough time for the new foliage to mature before cold weather arrives. Best to wait at this point.

  14. Mary says

    I planted two, not too big, clearance purchase butterfly bushes at the end of summer 2012 between the parking lot sidewalk and my business building. They grew to phenomenal size this year, 7+ feet tall and probably 6 feet across. They are way too big for the space they are in. Is it possible with drastic pruning to make these “fit” where they are planted or must I transplant them out of there and find them another home?

    • says

      Drastic pruning will be a temporary fix but you will be dealing with this problem every year. Butterfly Bush is a fast growing shrub. Even drastic pruning only tames it temporarily. Best to dig it up this winter and relocate it. You can also prune it then as well.

  15. Lynn Antolick says

    I planted two young butterfly bushes this summer (one in June and one in July). They are only about 12 inches tall and have blooms on them. I live in Northeastern PA and am concerned about what to do with these bushes when it becomes cold and starts to snow. Do I leave them alone and just hope they make it? Should I wrap them with anything? From what I’ve read, I think I should wait until March to prune them, but when that time comes: since they are so small, how far back should I prune?

    • says

      Dieback of the top growth won’t be a concern. Make sure you have a good 3 inch layer of mulch at the base to protect the roots over winter. Then in March (late winter to early spring), you can cut back the branches to where you have healthy tissue. Based on the size of your shrubs, that may be very close to the base. Butterfly bush is a shrub that can handle heavy pruning and should come back strong as temperatures warm up.

  16. Jessica says

    Hi, I planted my butterfly plants in a pot around May. They’ve been growing in a pot outside throughout the summer, and now that summer’s coming to an end I figured I should plant them into the ground. I’ve been researching a lot and have read about pruning, and I don’t know if now would be a good time. They’re about 1-2 foot stalks, with green leaves. There have been no budding or flowers yet, and today I went outside to check on them and there were tiny pieces of pollen on the top inch or so of the stalks. What does it mean? And would it still be a good idea to plant/prune them now? Any advice will be much appreciated!!

    • says

      Hi Jessica. I would plant it in the ground now. Fall is the perfect time for planting to give the roots plenty of time to establish without a lot of stress on the above ground growth. I would not prune it though until very late winter or early spring. Just let the plant focus on establishment right now and not new top growth.

  17. Angie says

    I live in zone 6 (Ohio). My son and I purchased butterfly bush seeds that came with a small egg shaped terrarium this past January. We cared for it and after the last frost, (around mother’s day), we planted it in our front yard. We planted it in a location where it would get regular sunlight throughout the day. We have had an unusually cloudy summer. It is now early September. The bush has grown to have 2 main branches that are about 2′ tall and with a few shoots that are about 1′ tall, it is full of nice green leaves (some are close to the base), but has yet to bud. My concern is whether or not this bush is established enough to make it through winter. We have nutured this plant for 9 months and has been our special project, we would hate to lose it during the winter.

    • says

      Angie, I would allow this plant to grow in the ground where you planted it. Once the plant is established enough to put our flowers, it will do so. I’m not surprised that this year not much happened but that is not a concern. Just keep an eye on it, make sure it gets sufficient water (but not too much) and be sure to mulch the base of the plant with about 3 inches of cover. Don’t be concerned if during the winter this plant does incur some die back on the branches. The mulch should keep the plant base alive worst case and once it warms up, you should see lots of new growth emerging and I suspect you’ll even have flowers next summer as well. I’d also fertilize in spring with a balanced organic fertilizer and again in mid summer. Assuming you have plenty of sunlight, I think you’re plant will be fine. Good luck.

  18. April Spear says

    I just moved and transplanted my butterfly bushes in the middle of summer (I know a no-no). They now look horrible. I do think they are alive but my question is… should I cut them back in this heat or leave them be.

    • says

      Leave them alone. Although there are lots of articles out there about cutting back transplants to reduce the stress, more recent data says to leave them alone. When you prune, this stimulates new growth. But with a plants that have just been relocated, the roots are not established in their new home yet. If recently pruned, plants are trying to put on new growth and establish themselves with new roots. That’s a lot going on. By not cutting back at transplant, then the plant can focus on establishment first.

  19. Marietta says

    My butterfly bush keeps looking limp; the leaves look wilted, so I assume it needs more water. Another one nearby has lots of yellow leaves, and according to your answer above, I might be OVERwatering it. Could they possibly need more sun? The limp-looking one is in the shade some of the day. Thanks!

    • says

      The more sun the better, but shade wouldn’t cause wilting leaves alone. But yellowing leaves is often a sign of too much or not enough sun. Given your question, I’d go for more sun. When Plants aren’t growing in their preferred environment, lot’s of stresses start to impact the plant adversely.

      • Marietta says

        I wonder if they need to be fertilized? They are looking particularly limp today, and watering doesn’t seem to perk them up at all.

  20. Kay Osborn says

    Hi. I have a medium sized (5 – 6) butterfly bush that seems in poor health this year. There have been many leaves turning yellow (I try to pluck them off when I see them) and the majority of the flowers are brown instead of purple. What should I do?

    • says

      It’s hard to say without seeing the overall environment. Could it be that your plant is getting too much water this year. Overall yellowing leaves can be a sign of that. Otherwise I can’t tell you from her Kay. I suggest you take a clipping of a branch that demonstrates what’s happening to your extension service office or a local garden center that might be able to diagnosis the problem.

  21. Emily L. says

    Hi there! I’ve read everyone’s comments and your responses, but didn’t see the answer I was looking for. I have three butterfly bushes next to my house (in Western NC) that have exploded in size in the past several weeks (they are approaching 8 feet tall all of a sudden) and they hang out into the driveway to the point where I cannot back my car completely in. It is 6/22/2013, is it too late to cut them back without damaging them? I really would like to, but I don’t want to hurt them, and they also haven’t flowered yet and don’t have any buds either. I’ve sprayed them with neem oil since some of the leaves look like they are being chowed down on a lot by bugs, but the bugs are still munching away. I am just not sure what to do about the pruning and the bugs… any help would be very much appreciated. Thank you in advance!!

    • says

      Hi Emily. Although heavy pruning is best addressed earlier in the year, it is not too late to do some now. I would cut back as needed without going overboard this time and save your more aggressive pruning for late winter / early spring next year. Keep in mind, although they haven’t flowered yet, whatever you cut back now may not grow back in time to flower again this season. Fortunately though, these are fast growing plants and with your large root mass, they should respond quickly to new growth. Sunlight and weather will dictate how much though.
      As for the bugs, neem oil is still a good repellent but it won’t kill anything. Insecticidal soap is good but you have to make contact with the pest for it to work, and it’s not effective on pests with hard shells like beetles. If you resort to spraying a synthetic (or any) insecticide please wait till late in the day or dusk to avoid inadvertent contact with any beneficial insects.

  22. Laura says

    I have a butterfly bush that has started to outgrow it’s space. I didn’t realize that it was safe to prune them until recently, but am concerned that it’s now too late to do it this year. It’s late May, and the the bush is very green, though no blooms yet. Is it still safe for me to prune it? If so, how far back? Thanks!

  23. Sally Knox says

    Help!! Is it just a cold spring causing my two new butterfly bushes to not be budding? I’d planted them last summer and they grew and bloomed like crazy! I’d read to prune in the spring after no further chance of frost. Well, we just got 5″ of snow, which is now gone, on 5-3-13. I checked my bushes and the branches are all dry and brittle. Should I cut them off 12″ above the ground and hope for new growth? Shorter? Don’t prune? I’m confused by everyone’s opinions.
    Thank you.

    • says

      You could make a test cut by taking one of the branches that seems dead at the end and cut back a few inches at a time until you see green tissue in the the branch tip. Cut back to there and you’ll eliminate any dead wood that may have occurred in the latest cold snap. However, if you do nothing, it will still branch out on its own from that part of the wood that is still viable. But by cutting back, you can stimulate new growth and more branching. So, you can take the proactive approach or the ‘wait and see’ approach. If in a few weeks you don’t see any new budding or growth, then do cut back until just above the first signs of life.

  24. gg says

    I have dreamed of having a nice huge butterfly bush for years and have heard too many things about when and how to prune…help? some say there are two kinds; those that grow on old wood and those that grow on new. By reading your answers it sounds like there is only one kind and cuting simply depends…Right now the Bush is about 4 ft high and looked strong but I just noticed many healthy looking new growth coming up at the bottom. Should I cut all of the old wood off or should I follow the rule of only cutting off a 1/3 of the old wood? Thank you for your help….maybe my dreams will finally come to fruition with your help!

    • says

      No need to cut down the old wood. But if you cut it back, it will resprout and send up new growth quickly. Another approach you could do is to eliminate 1/4 to 1/3 of the old wood each season. You are always striving to have the best shape and healthiest wood. If nothing else, prune out the interior branches that are crossing or rubbing or growing inward so that you allow as much light into the plant as possible. Butterfly bushes are fast growing and bloom on new wood. With enough sunlight, they should bloom just fine this summer, no matter what you do (within reason).

  25. Susie says

    I live in Southeast Michigan and have had a butterfly bush for approx. 6-7 years. Last year was the first time I decided not to prune and with our really early warm weather, it sprouted leaves and then we had a hard frost. I cut all the frosted parts off and it came back beautifully. This year, however, I have left it and I don’t see ANY green sprouts anywhere on the bush. My next door neighbor said hers is the same. Am I getting worried too soon? I know it’s only May 1, but I don’t want to lose this gorgeous bush!! Thanks!!

  26. ShemShem says

    We have a butterfly bush that was amazing last summer at our beach house in Ocean Beach, Fire Island, NY. It grew to 6 feet and attracted many butterflies. Super Storm Sandy came in October and pushed in about 3 feet of ocean water to the garden it resides in. Then the salt water quickly retreated back out to sea. Right after the storm, we cleaned up the area and made sure the roots were fine and the winter pruning done. It is now the end of April and, although the Winter has been harsh with temperatures warming up only now, we don’t see any life on the bush; no buds or green at the bottom. Branches, where pruned, are brown with a white center. Other plants and trees in the garden are starting to show life. Should we assume this butterfly bush is a victim of Sandy or should we be patient and hope it’s just dormant and will soon “wake up?” I appreciate any feedback. Thanks.

    • says

      Give it time. Soil temps need to warm up and plants are just starting to wake up where you live. If you’ve provided great soil conditions, adequate water (not too much) and good sunlight, then they should be fine in time.

  27. Lynn says

    Last summer we added two butterfly bushes to our garden. They survived their first summer, but this spring all of the top wood is brittle and dead. There seem to be little sprouts at the base, which might indicate that the root is not dead. Can we safely cut the bush down to the root stump and save the bushes?

  28. tyler weseman says

    I recently planted two butterfly bushes in a small garden , can I prune them down to two inches to keep them under four feet?

  29. says

    great info
    im ready to prune my butterfly bush now

    ? can a home gardener make more bushes from the one you have?
    propagation is what im asking..
    thanks
    ro

  30. Amy says

    I have a butterfly bush that has really outgrown it’s space. I plan on trimming it back this week, and will be giving it to a friend. When would be the best time to dig it up and move it? We are in ohio, zones 5-6.

  31. julie says

    Hi my name is Julie.. We just bought a house in April 2012 and we have a butterfly bush in front at corner of house. The bush is huge with limbs laying over and the wind this past summer has beat it alot. I’m gonna say the bush is probably 6 ft at leat, maybe 7. It is beautiful but like I said it is leaning over all over the place due to it being so big. It is now November 12 2012 and we was wondering how and when to prune or cut it back and how much? I would appreciate any help. it is starting to get cold here now and we have had a couple of frosts but the last few days has been in the 70′s.. Please let me know what we should do.. Thank you for all your help..

    • says

      Hi Julie. Your butterfly bush is very durable. It could take a pruning now, but I’d wait if you possibly can until later winter. If you prune now, you could run a moderate risk of die-back but even so, come spring, you could cut below the damage and still see new growth. As a rule of thumb, you want to try and keep your heavy pruning to cutting back by no more than a third of the total mass. But with this plant, you can pretty much cut back to the size you want and know that it will grow back quickly over the summer.
      Enjoy.

  32. Don says

    I would like to USPS a seedling to an out of state relative. I would appreciate your suggestion on proper shipping. Should it be enclosed in a vented box or shipped open with a tag?
    Kind regards, Don.

    • says

      Hi Don. I get lots of plants by mail. In my observation, the ones that survive and look the best upon arrival are watered well right before shipping, and packed in nicely into their shipping box. However, it isn’t necessary to provide a vented box. Just tuck in enough paper or packing material so it’s snug but not compressed. Then, notify your recipient of the estimated time of arrival and make sure they open the box and remove the plant as soon as possible after that. But, allow time on the receiving end for the plant to reacclimate. Don’t place it in direct sun until the plant has recovered from the shipping. But do make sure the root ball is sufficiently moist. That should be all you need to ship your plants successfully. Good luck.

  33. Pat says

    We bought a house in September that has a huge butterfly bush in the front… it is almost the height of the house (5 yrs old). How much and when should I prune?

    • says

      Pat, these plants can take a severe pruning better than most. But now that we’re well into summer, I’d wait if you can to prune next winter when the shrub is dormant. Then, you can prune back by about half. Normal rule of thumb is to never remove more than a third of the plant, but these can take a bit more.

  34. Kevin says

    I have two white butterfly bushes that I bought and planted last year. This past Winter they took a beating with the heavy snow in the Northeast,but fortunately they came back and now stand about 7 feet tall. My issue is they have anincredible amount of buds (now end of July) but no flowers have bloomed yet. My concern is should they have begun flowering earlier since it is now approaching August? The nicety about this is once they do bloom, I don’t think I’ll see green given the vast amount of flower heads showing up.

    • says

      Fear not Kevin. Mother Nature is a funny woman and everything is on her time. She often keeps us guessing. The fact that your plant is full of blooms tells me the flowers will burst into full glory soon. Anticipation is often worth the wait!
      Thanks for your question and best regards.
      Joe

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