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Plant Profiles

Evil Ways butterfly bush



Butterfly bushes are showy Summer-blooming shrubs.  Flowers and hot weather: An intuitive partnership.  In Fall, they become completely counter-intuitive: They grow a special crop of small leaves that persist through the Winter.  Buddleja is still a deciduous shrub—it just leafs out twice a year.


These Winter leaves are a fraction the size of the Summer crop.  Those of 'Evil Ways' only have a hint of the chrome yellow color that suffuses the foliage in warm weather.




The Winter leaves are so much smaller than the Summer ones, in part, because they resist becoming swollen with water.  (It's entirely probable that these small leaves have the same complement of the internal structure as the large Summer ones.  The Summer ones are just fully-inflated with water.)  A good thing, too:  With so much less water, the leaves are correspondingly less susceptible to freezing.   No wonder they hold up so well.




What's the purpose of a cold-weather leaves?  The intuitive choice would be to drop leaves for the Winter, not grow them; they're just one more thing that could get damaged by the cold.  And yet many hardy plants seem to get the jump on Spring by producing their first Spring leaves way back in Fall: Asters, mums, verbascums, poppies—and butterfly bushes—are only the more obvious eager-beavers.


All of these plants also grow where Winter isn't cold in any New England sense, just cool and rainy.  In other words, it's the growing season.  These plants, then, aren't getting the jump on Spring at all.  They're behaving as if they were living in, say, Northern California, where Fall and Winter bring plenty of rain, and the sun's not so hot that it's all evaporated by noon.  Prime growing weather, indeed.


It's just a lucky fluke that all of these plants are also hardy enough that they tolerate a few months of nasty weather—Winter—in the middle of that prime growing weather. 




Here's how to grow this colorful shrub:


Latin Name

Buddleja davidii 'Evil Ways'

Common Name

'Evil Ways' butterfly bush


Scrophulariaceae, the Scrophularia family.  And that would be?  Another name: the Figwort family?  And that would be?  Finally:  The Snapdragon family.

What kind of plant is it?

Deciduous bush. 


Zones 5 - 9.


Upright, multi-stemmed, and broad.


Rate of Growth


Size in ten years

Buddleja davidii grows so fast that it can become full size in two or three years.  Buddleja davidii cultivars perform best when coppiced yearly—see "How to handle it" below—so the size of free-range growth isn't a factor.  With coppicing, five feet tall and wide.   


Open, with characteristic awkward branching visible even when in full bloom and full leaf.

Grown for

its foliage and flowers: The bright yellow leaves are solid, not variegated.  They're in vivid harmony with the flowers, which are purple.  The two are an electric combination.  The flowers have a honey fragrance that is very noticeable on hot still days.  I didn't say it was also very pleasing on hot still days, but it is impressive.


its flowers' appeal to butterflies:  They don't call Buddleia "butterfly bush" for nothing.


its vigor:  In my experience, 'Evil Ways' is more reliable and full-growing than any of the variegated Buddleja cultivars.  If you crave a Buddleja davidii cultivar with foliar as well as floral prowess, 'Evil Ways' is the one.

Flowering season

Buddleja davidii flowers mid-Summer through early Fall. 

Color combinations

'Evil Ways' relates well to more colors than the obvious yellow and purple in its neighbors.  The flowers have a lot of pink in them—they're purple, not indigo—so you could include 'Evil Ways' in pink-friendly plantings, too.  There your eyes would interpret its bright foliage as merely chartreuse and, so, complementary, not the difficult-with-pink yellow that it actually is.  There aren't many plants that could comfortably mix with school-bus yellow at one extreme, and pepto-bismol pink at the other.  Red, though, still seems a bridge too far.  White is also a stretch; technically it does go with everything, but 'Evil Ways' is so uniformly vivid in both leaves and flowers that the inherent chastity of white seems unrelated even if not actually conficting.

Partner plants

One common name for Buddleja is Summer lilac, in honor of the resemblance of the individual flowers of each other, plus the similarity in color palette.  It's unintentional but also true that both bushes are, as bushes, unattractive.  The branching is gangly, and growth is almost always paltry until a couple of feet above ground.  Despite the months of flowers (and, in the case of 'Evil Ways', the terrific foliage), Buddleia bushes could never be thought of as focal.  They are the first among equals in the second-tier job as filler. 


Partner, then, with full-to-the-ground plants in front that get two to three feet high and plants to the sides and back that get as high as possible.  Because Buddleja requires full sun and good drainage—or at least not bad drainage—front-rank partners with similar tastes but contrasting flowers and foliage include peonies, 'My Monet' weigela, and mid-height dahlias.  Mounding evergreens would be pleasing too, such as Cephalotaxus 'Duke Gardens' or a medium-low boxwood like 'Vardar Valley'.  Taller partners include purple- or lavender-flowered rose-of-sharon, purple smoke bushes, purple-leaved ninebark, and PG hydrangeas.  Although the Fall crop of overwintering foliage is appealing because of its eccentricity, Buddleja is not a shrub grown specifically for Winter interest, so there's no benefit to underplanting with evergreen groundcovers like pachysandra, ivy, or vinca.  They don't get tall enough to hide butterfly bush's bare ankles. 

Where to use it in your garden

As in "Partner Plants" above, 'Evil Ways' needs to go in back of knee-high plants, and to be backed and "sided" by plants its height or taller.  The best look is for its foliage and flowers to seem to be surfing the waves of adjacent growth, not arising from an actual and separate bush.  Because the bush demands all possible sun, try to site it where any taller neighbors are only to the north, or failing that, to the east.  As long as a plant gets the sun from the south and the west, it feels that it's still receiving "full" sun.


Full sun, well-drained and even dry soil, excellent drainage, especially in the Winter.

How to handle it: The Basics

'Evil Ways' is a typical Buddleja.  Wait until new Spring growth has not just begun but has resumed in earnest—truly, there's no rush—and then prune every branch back to the absolute lowest pair of leaves you can find.  This thorough brutality is called coppicing.  The goal is to minimize the wood from the previous season, which is unattractive and doesn't become any less so just because it sprouts all the new wood that will provide the foliage and flowers of this season's show.  Check the bush out a week or two after pruning, loppers at the ready; if you find that some stubs have sprouted new leaves even lower down, cut off those extra top inches, too.


If you can force yourself, revisit the bush every couple of weeks after it's started blooming, and cut off the spent flower clusters.  This encourages still more flowering, and the bush really does look tidier, too.  That said, some years I can't even whip myself to do it. 


Do no pruning in Fall, Winter, or even in early Spring.  Out-of-season pruning can make the bush particularly susceptible to Winter kill, especially toward the colder end of its hardiness range.  Even premature pruning in Spring can be a set-back.  You'll always have plenty of other early-Spring tasks, anyway.  Pruning Buddleja bushes (like pruning bushes of Hydrangea macrophylla) is always better left until mid-Spring or even later, when the weather is solidly warm.  Prune when there's no question that the bush has thoroughly awakened from Winter, and then you won't have caught it by surprise.  Neither Buddleja nor Hydrangea like surprises. 

How to handle it: Another option—or two?

I keep meaning to partner some of my Buddleja davidii cultivars with one of the Group C clematis, which also get cut back ruthlessly in the Spring.  Then the butterfly bush's panicles of small flowers could be juxtaposed with large clematis flowers that were, nonetheless, in great coloristic harmony.  Clematis jackmanii, say, or one of the Clematic viticella hybrids like 'Purpurea Plena'.  The trick is to plant the clematis so that it has rich soil and plenty of water—but no so close to the buddleia that the clematis has root competition from the buddleia, nor that the buddleia suffers from comparatively poor drainage because of the moisture-rich clematis patch.   

Quirks or special cases



Buddleja davidii can self-seed to the point of invasiveness; check here to learn if the USDA classifies Buddleja as invasive where you're gardening.


Buddleja davidii is an eager mutater and hybridizer.  There will never be an excess of hardy shrubs that bloom July through September, let alone in such a broad color range: White, pink, purple-red, blue, lavender, and indigo.  Hybrids with B. fallowiana and B. globosa yield still more choices.  'Honeycomb' is a hybrid with B. globosa, and is the best choice for yellow flowers.  


Some cultivars have variegated foliage, but, in my experience, they're not very vigorous, and certainly not as reliable as 'Evil Ways'. 


Cultivars of smaller and smaller habit are emerging.  Decades ago, it was news that 'Nanho Blue' might only get five or six feet tall.  Fifteen years ago, 'White Ball' was the first true dwarf, never topping three feet even if you never prune it.  Now there are a number of short and dwarf cultivars—e.g., 'Blue Chip', which doesn't ever get much taller than two feet—with others popping up annually.


But the newest talent of some Buddleja hybrids is also the most welcome.  B. davidii 'Asian Moon' is sterile, as is 'Silver Anniversary', a hybrid of B. crispa and B. loricata.  Finally, no self-seeding to worry about. 



On-line and at retailers.


All Buddleja cultivars and species can be propagated by cuttings.  Only the species come true from seed. 

Native habitat

Buddleja davidii is native to China.  'Evil Ways' was a spontaneous mutation discovered in Oregon by Sean Hogan, founder of Cistus Nursery.  Ironically, Oregon now classifies Buddleja davidii as a weed, so it and its cultivars can no longer be sold there.


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