Have you ever run into a plant (literally or figuratively) that strikes you as beautiful and odd all at the same time? The plant I want to introduce you to today is one for me. The first time I came across this beauty, I didn’t think anything of it because it wasn’t blooming. The second time however, the blooms caught my attention, almost as strongly as the accompanying buzzing from all the insects sur-rounding each bloom. Say “hello” to the Common Buttonbush.
Cephalanthus occidentalis or the Common Buttonbush is a 6-12 ft tall (sometimes taller) shrub that likes to grow on the edges of swamps here in Central Florida. It’s native to North America where it mostly grows in the Southeast but is native as far north as Canada. It prefers to grow in swamps, around ponds and margins of streams, sand, loam, clay, and limestone where it’s moist and has poor drainage. It’s even happy in standing water. You can also find it in prairie swales, around lakes, marsh, creek & swamp margins and occasionally on dry, limestone bluffs. Or, in short Florida habitats. It’s leaves grow in pairs or in threes, and are petiolate with blades up to 8 inches long, ovate to narrower, sometimes 1/3 or less as wide as long, with a pointed tip and rounded to tapered base, smooth margins and glossy upper surface. The lower surface tends to be duller. The glossy, dark-green leaves are among the many Florida leaves that don’t change color for the Fall. The pale pink or white flowers are small and formed in distinctive, dense, spherical clusters (heads) with a fringe of pistils protruded beyond the white corollas. These flowers are long-lasting, blooming from June through September and are followed by rounded masses of nutlets that persist through the winter. The trunks are often twisted and the much-branched shrub (sometimes small tree) is often crooked and leaning with an irregular crown, the balls of white flowers resembling pincushions, and buttonlike balls of fruit that give this plant it’s com-mon name.
The Buttonbush has a long history of use as a medicinal herb, in spite of it’s toxicity, though it’s not used often in modern herbalism. The leaves contain glycosides that can be harmful if taken in large doses. They are harmful, even in small doses, to most domestic animals so don’t let your pup chew on these leaves! The bark contains an abundance of cephalanthin, which affects most vertebrates, both cold and warm-blooded, destroys red blood cells, and is an emetic, spasmodic, and eventually produces paralysis. In short, don’t use this herb without supervision!
Scientific Name- Cephalanthus occidentalis
Common Names- Common Buttonbush, Buttonbush, Button Willow, Honey Bells, Honeybells, Honey Balls, Honeyballs
Synonyms- Cephalanthus occidentalis var. californicus, Cephalanthus occidentalis var. pubescens
Family- Rubiaceae (Madder Family)
Edibility- No edible uses are currently known. Leaves are toxic in large doses.
Summary of Actions- Astringent, bitter (inner bark of the root), diaphoretic (root), diuretic (inner bark), emetic, febrifuge, laxative, odontalgic, ophthalmic, tonic (bark)
Energetics & Flavors- Bitter
Parts Used- Fresh and dried bark of stem, branches, and roots. Flowers. Leaves.
Traditional Native American Uses- Some Native American tribes used the leaves and root bark to re-duce and sweat out fevers. The Meskwaki used the inner bark to induce vomiting. The Chippewa used Buttonbush to slow or stop excessive menstrual flow and to reduce pan and cramping associated with excessive or overly long menstrual flow. The Choctaws chewed the bark to relieve toothache. The Seminole also utilized this plant to treat urinary blockage, apparently either stones or swollen prostate.
Digestive Complaints- A syrup can be made from the flowers and leaves to use as a tonic and laxative. Bitter properties can also be used to help aid digestion by stimulating bile production which improves the digestion of fats and helps with the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins.
Fevers- A tincture or decoction of the fresh bark can be used for intermittent and remittent fevers. The febrifuge and diaphoretic properties help to reduce fever and induce a sweat to help sweat out fever. Because of this, Buttonbush can also be used as a substitute for quinine in the treatment of Malaria.
Menstrual Complaints- This plant can be used to stop excessive menstrual flow traditionally this was done by boiling 1 cup of stems and leaves for 5 minutes, then taking 3 cups daily during the flow. An-other method is to take a 6-inch piece of root, 1 inch in diameter, chop it, add to boiling water and boil for 30 minutes. 3 cups can be taken over a 24-hour period for menstrual pain and cramping associated with an overly long menstrual flow.
Lungs- The root has traditionally been boiled with honey to make a syrup used for lung problems. Also, the inner bark has been used for coughs.
Kidney & Gall Stones- The inner bark has traditionally been used to help clear kidney gravel and pre-vent the formation of kidney stones. Its bitter properties help to stimulate bile production and prevent gall stones.
Other Benefits- The flowers of this plant are wonderful for attracting pollinators, especially bees. It’s often used as a honey plant for this reason.
Cautions, Contraindications, and Warnings- Do not use if you have problems with ulcers. The leaves contain glucosides and can be toxic in large doses. Symptoms include vomiting, convulsions, chronic spasms and muscular paralysis.
Aren't the flowers gorgeous? What do you think of this plant? Are you growing one or do you have one in your yard? Have you come face to face with the bark? Do you have any questions or comments? Share them down below! I only included a basic introduction to this interesting native plant. Follow me on Facebook and Instagram for updates on my adventures in Nature. Find me on YouTube and check out my videos! I also have a few things up on Teespring, check it out! Also, if you like what I do and what to see more, Become a Patron!
Button Bush: Natural Medicinal Herbs: http://www.naturalmedicinalherbs.net/herbs/c/cephalanthus-occidentalis=button-bush.php#:~:text=It%20has%20been%20used%20as,%2C%20kidney%20stones%2C%20pleurisy%20etc.
Buttonbush: Earthnotes Herb Library: https://earthnotes.tripod.com/buttonbush.htm
Buttonbush: Texas Beyond History: https://www.texasbeyondhistory.net/ethnobot/images/buttonbush.html
Cephalanthus Buttonbush: Henriette’s Herbal Homepage: https://www.henriettes-herb.com/eclectic/kings/cephalanthus.html
Cephalanthus occidentalis: Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center: https://www.wildflower.org/plants/result.php?id_plant=ceoc2
Cephalanthus occidentalis: Native American Ethnobotany Database: http://naeb.brit.org/uses/search/?string=Cephalanthus+occidentalis
Cephalanthus occidentalis: Plants for a Future: https://pfaf.org/user/Plant.aspx?LatinName=Cephalanthus+occidentalis
Cephalanthus occidentalis Buttonbush: Practical Plants: https://practicalplants.org/wiki/Cephalanthus_occidentalis#:~:text=A%20strong%20decoction%20has%20been,%2C%20diaphoretic%2C%20diuretic%20and%20tonic.
Cephalanthus occidentalis Buttonbush Medicinal Plant Uses: Charles W. Kane, Applied Medical Botany: https://medivetus.com/botanic/cephalanthus-occidentalis-buttonbush-medicinal-uses/