Butterfly bushes are a favorite among many gardeners. The showy, fragrant blooms attract all sorts of beneficial insects to your garden. You may even find a hummingbird or two stopping by to enjoy the nectar inside the tiny flowers.
When and how to prune a butterfly bush is a topic that comes up quite a bit with our readers. Butterfly bushes are crazy fast growers. They can easily grow up to 12 feet in only one or two growing seasons. Cutting them back is perfectly safe and something we do routinely.
When should I prune my butterfly bush?
If you’re a seasoned follower of this blog, you’ll already know what I’m about to say. The answer is…..ANYTIME! You should prune your butterfly bush when it needs to be pruned. Don’t let the calendar dictate when you need to prune. If your butterfly bush is getting scraggly or out of control, prune it- no matter what time of year it is.
The butterfly bush pictured above is one year old. Its a bit on the scraggly side. Cutting it back about halfway will do wonders to help it branch out. A little pruning will help encourage fuller and more dense growth.
I would also recommend moving this bush to a different location. Butterfly bushes are fast growers, and the small area next to the sidewalk is not enough space to contain it. It will need constant pruning to keep it from growing over the walkway.
What about big butterfly bushes?
This butterfly bush (above) is only about 2 years old. It has grown beautifully, but now that summer is coming to an end, its starting to outgrow its space. These plants are tough as nails. It won’t hurt it one bit to be trimmed down low.
Butterfly bushes die back each winter. When spring comes they begin to grow back and bloom on new wood. You don’t have to prune your butterfly bushes every year, but its common practice to cut butterfly bushes very low each winter to encourage lots of new flowers next spring on the new growth.
Although winter is still a few months away, we were ready to cut this bush back. So we did. Butterfly bushes are forgiving plants. They will come back and look like a million bucks next spring.
How low can I prune my butterfly bush?
This is that same butterfly bush. We trimmed to under 12 inches.
Should I deadhead my butterfly bush?
Butterfly bushes require very little maintenance. Clipping off spent blooms will help encourage new blossoms. Its not a necessity, but it helps your plant look nicer.
Its best not to let the plant go to seed. Because butterfly bushes are hybrids, you’ll often find that the seedlings look weedy. You can avoid those weedy spreaders, by deadheading your spent blooms.
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Sandy Zanick says
Hi Mike, I live in zone 6.
When should I cut back my butterfly bushes?
Some say wait until early spring before they leaf out. Or now, it’s up to you.
Erica Fernandez says
Erica from Cali here. I have a butterfly bush that I had for years. I wouldn’t necessarily call it a bush I would call it a tree as it now has a trunk like a tree. It’s grown to the top of the house.. Although I keep it trimmed is there a way that I can clip it mostly back to the trunk? Will it still grow? So we are approaching November 1st is it too late to trim it back that far?
Wait until it’s dormant, the cut it back as much as you want and it should respond fine. I never make promises, plants are plants, but I for sure would trim it if it were mine.
My lovely 6 year old common lilac is dying. Has been another drought year here in Southern Iowa. Any advice how to save this plant. Was taken as new off shoot from a friend’s old lilac bush. Have not had problems until late July.
Really not much you can do but water as needed and hope it does well next spring.
I have hydrangea bushes that are huge. I just don’t know when to trim them. I trimmed this spring but did not get flowers. If I trim now will they bloom next spring?
Ideal time to trim them is as soon as they are done blooming. If they need it, I’d trim now.
Maria, it also depends what type of hydrangea you have. Some start new stems and flowers from a ground, so bloom on old stems. Do not trim down the second type. They will not bloom.
Marycatherine Major says
I have a lilac bush and don’t know if I should prune it or not it has grown to 3ft and is 2 yrs old.
Prune as needed.
Although ogh, for lilac the best time to prune is after blooming season is done, otherwise you may nit get flowers the next season
I brought lilacs from Illinois to Alabama they bloom once early and then nothing
They are probably not getting enough of a dormancy period in Alabama.
Karen O'Brien says
In recent years landscapers have started using, what looks like miniature sedum plants, on their tiered gardens. It stays low, keeps weeds down and spreads quickly … so quickly that it has reached my property in 4 yrs. We can actually trace the route it took, over five different properties. However, it just keeps spreading and travelling and nothing seems to kill it. Do you have any suggestions?
Cultivation or spray it.
My butterfly bush is in a large pot. It’s its first year. Can I leave it there or should I put it in the ground?? Thanks!
I’d put it in the ground for sure.
I put mine in the garage over the winter and back out on the deck in the spring and is nice and healthy.
Hi! My butterfly bushes have gotten extremely woody. I have let them grow and not done much pruning. Is it too late to cut them way back since it should have been done before winter?
You should be able to cut them back now and they’ll be fine.
Question, We pruned a few butterfly bushes all of the way to the ground. Not six inches above, all of the way to the ground. Will it survive and thrive or should I be replacing them?
I’d just leave them as they are until at least mid to late May. They might come back beautifully.
At the back of my yard I have a butterfly bush jungle that acts as a privacy hedge. It’s not really one bush but many stems that look pretty scraggly when not in leaf but very lush when leafy. I hack it back early spring to about 4 feet and it grows to about 7 feet each year. My question: this year a part of it is turning a beautiful orange/red mid September. Looks great but I wonder if this is a sign of ill health? I don’t remember seeing it before.
It’s probably fine, could be just a sign of early defoliation, maybe it dried out over the summer.
Lucy MacArthur says
As a volunteer footpath clearing person, I recently joined with one other to cut back – only with hand shears – various foliage blocking the path. This included cutting back some butterfly bushes and thinning out where they were damaging neighbouring fences. We were told off by a passerby, who said that birds might be nesting in them – I said that birds are certainly attracted to them but over many years of having these in my garden, I have never witnessed any nesting in this shrub!
I would hate to repeat this process if it was going to threaten birds. Will it? This was in the south west region of the UK in early June.
I would never use any power tools to clear footpaths at this time of year.
I don’t know but there’s probably a better time of year to do that kind of work, after all of the nests are empty.
Lucy MacArthur says
Ok, thank you Mike. We will be more careful on timing in future. It was a well used footpath and the shrubs are very close to the path and so very unlikely to be nesting activity there but would hate to cause any harm. Lucy
Karen Jones says
I had Cardinals nesting in my Butterfly Bush in SE Pennsylvania this summer.
Hello. I have a big butterfly Bush that I cut back about a foot. Now there is coming water and almost like it bleeds out of the trunk where I cut it. And it smells bad too. Have I killed it?
Probably not, just be patient with it.
Do you know why there is fluid coming out where i cut it? I have not seen that before.
It’s just sap running, much like maple syrup does.
Cynthia Gonnella says
Hi, your picture is showing the bush growing from the old wood, yet you state they bloom on new wood. Can you clarify? Thank you.
They do bloom on new wood, that I know for sure.
I know friends that never cut back their butterfly bush and they still bloom great. I always cut mine back to keep them looking good. They seem to bloom on either old or new wood.
Pat Ledger says
I have a white lilac bush that for the last few years is not blooming much. Is there
something I can feed it, to bring the blooms back?
You could try a high phosporous fertilizer, but I really don’t like to monkey with plants. They know what to do and usually do best when we leave them alone other than some pruning.
Lilacs only really bloom prolifically on wood 2 years old or less. Older branches should be cut back as far as safely possible.
ed schmidt says
Eastern Shore, Md. I leave all mine go to seed for the little birds in the winter. They work the bushes for the seeds.
Pat D Bley says
What may I ask can one do to get the butterfly bush to overwinter? I live in WI on that little thumb that sticks out of the east side of the state. I have tried and tried to get a butterfly bush to overwinter and every year it dies. It looks like it is starting to bud out, and then we get as frost and that takes care of the plant. Any suggestions?
You might try protecting it in spring but they can be touchy.
Try using a frost blanket you can buy for when the temperature is predicted to ho below freezing.
I live in Ontario with fairly harsh winters. Late in the fall I trim my butterfly bushes to about 6″ and leave some twigs c leaves covering the mound. They come back beautifully every spring.
I live in Western Massachusetts, and it appears as though the butterfly bush is not as strong or hardy in our neck of the woods. I had a Yellow bush it was gorgeous and attracted lots of butterflies. I had it almost 3 years, I would cut it back and cover it with mulch for the winter as I was told to do because we get lots of snow and its very cold. But two years ago it just never came up. And the same thing happened to my friend with her purple bush, I spoke to 3 garden stores and was told by all 3 that for some reason a lot of people have come in to replace their bushes too. Is there a disease we need to know about or maybe its just to cold here ?
Its kind of comforting to know that I am not the only one that lost their butterfly bush in the last couple years, as sad as it is.
I have looked every where for the yellow and cant seem to find it around here only the purple. We have given in and replaced the yellow with a purple bush in a different spot this summer 2018 and we are hoping for the best.
Mary Mahan says
I live in CT and only trim back my butterfly bushes in Feb/Mar time frame .trim back to 2ft. After last frost in late Mar or so I cut out all weak/dead wood. Fertilize and water. I have never cut it back to the ground. This bush now grows to 12/15 ft. I also have planted pink, white and lavender color bushes together. The effect is commented on by all neighbors ~ how did I get it to be tri-color? I never tell.
Janie Dudzic says
One comment mentioned pruning back a butterfly bush “under the roots”. What is the best was to do that? I dug up my butterfly bush after only 2 years and I couldn’t believe the size of those roots. I would like to try planting another BB in another area where I wouldn’t have to worry about the invasive roots.
Root pruning is done after Thanksgiving by simply pushing a spade into the ground approximately 18″ from the base of the tree all the way around. Going in at an angle to cut roots under the root ball is best. But this really only needs to be done on plants that are growing to be transplanted later and even then rarely done in an nursery.
I had a hard time with my butterfly bushes here on the hot dry westside of Kauai. Aphids attacked all the yellows and oranges, the pink just never made it. I still have one lavender bush that bloomed beautifully but now seems to want to climb out of the ground! I have to mound dirt around it to keep the roots covered. Is that normal?
Not normal, for some reason your plants are not rooting into the soil.
Yes I bought on-line ONCE. It was supposed to be a red maple. It’s trunk is now at least 2″ in diameter and it is still green. Along the way, I added some iron to the soil around it as I live in S Idaho where the soil is pH 7.5 to 7.8 and it did nothing to turn it red. That is my experience with purchasing on-line.I lived in a house about a mile away from where I live now and it had a beautiful red maple so I know they can grow here.
Sorry it’s a downer story.
Red maple trees do have green leaves. They are called red maples because the leaves turn brilliant red in the fall. Maples with summer deep reddish purple color are Crimson King Maple, or Ruby Red maple. And of course Japanese maples, many have red leaves, some have green or orange leaves.
I live in Northwest Florida and have bought several different red maple trees in the past. None of their leaves have turn red in the fall yet. I purchased an October Glory a few months ago as I was told that its leaves will turn red in this part of Florida. We will see. Fall is almost here.
Rosanne Astrup says
Mike I have 2 fig trees that have over the years became bushes and produce no fruit.
My husband never covers them in the winter in NY. Should I up root them and replace with new ones?
If they are not fruiting no reason to keep them. Not sure, but if they were grafted, maybe the grafted part died back.
Sorry Mike but this tree is green ALL season & into the fall. Suspect they sent me the wrong plant. BTW, the trunk is now going on 4 inches in diameter.
Enjoy everything about your website.
I moved a black knight butterfly bush, probably later than I should have but it didn’t show much new growth, but now it looks like it’s dying. Is there anything I can do to bring it back?
About all you can do at this point is keep it watered but not soaking wet and put some shade over it. Here are some transplanting tips and rules. https://mikesbackyardnursery.com/2011/10/transplanting-tips/
Jerry Crotwell says
Question; Can you root Bougainvillea cuttings in sand under intermittent mist, and what is the best time of the year to do so.
I have see some butterfly bushes trimmed up and shaped to a nice tree bush. How do I go about doing this and is it recommended?
Here you go. http://www.freeplants.com/free-article-training-trees-into-shrubs.htm
I have had great success pruning my butterfly bushes back nearly to the ground every Spring. For nearly 10 years now they come back nice and full, grow to about 5-6′ and attract all kinds of butterflies and other pollinaters and, yes, even a few humming birds!
Thank you , I will wait patiently for new growth.
What is nearly to the ground? 6 inches?
Ronda Steele says
Mike, you say when you propagate plants through cuttings to make sure they are not patented varieties. How do I know if my butterfly bushes are patented or not? I have a “Dark Knight”, and “Black Knight” and “Burgundy”, says the nursery tags on the plants.
Like Sharon mention, you can use the patent website, but it’s a real pain to use and it’s easy for it to not return information that is there. This is what I do. First check the tag. If a plant is patented it should say so right on the tag and usually says; “Propagation is Prohibited”.
Second do a google search and look at wholesale nursery websites. The wholesale sites that do not sell to the public do a good job of displaying the PP number. If you see PP and a number by the name of the plant, it’s patented.
Kim Neill says
I’m so glad I found this article about pruning a butterfly bush. I bought one this past year and loved it! However it became such a bee magnet that I was unable to weed out an undesirable and uninvited ground cover that grew beneath it. Since getting badly stung by something earlier this year I’m very timid to try to do so and will find a new spot for it. Still, I learned some great information from your article so thank you.
Jonathan Sweet says
Hi Mike, I have a Hardy Hibiscus, & wanted to know when is the best time to cut it back, as I’m trying to keep it in a nice tight ball on top!? Also, I always seem to cut back my Hyrdrangea’s at a Bad time, as it didn’t bloom at all this year! I think I’m cutting it back at the wrong time! Lastly, are you knowledgeable about Gopher’s Purge, & if so, do you have any, & seeds for sale!? Thanks Mike!
Right now (September) hardy hibiscus are still blooming. Trim them when they are done flowering. Best to trim them between October and April. They bloom on current years growth so don’t prune during the growing season. Prune your hydrangeas right after they bloom. Many didn’t bloom this year because of the harsh winter.
Judy Madron says
This is a great sight! I always get great help!
Butterfly bushes are considered invasive weeds in parts of the country. They spread like wildfire. I convinced my neighbor to prune hers….below the roots! There are other choices out there to attract butterflies and hummingbirds. Yes, it is easy to grow. Yes, a beginner probably won’t kill it or mess it up pruning it. But that doesn’t make it a good choice UNLESS the gardener is dedicated to deadheading it before the flowers go to seed. Monrovia is rumored to have a sterile Butterfly Bush that won’t spread and become invasive. Shop carefully!
I must have the sterile BB because mine do not make seedlings, and I wish they would. I love them.
Kim Neill says
Good information. Thank you.
Joseph Moore Sr says
I think you have mistaken butterfly weed (orange flowers) for butterfly bush.
David L. says
The Second pic above is NOT a Butterfly Bush 🙂 Dunno what it is, but it definitely is not a BB. FWIW, far better to let a BB alone til late fall. Better yet, wait and cut to ground – 12 – 18 ” on April 15. The leaves DO nurture the plant til it dies back.
If someone prunes a BB back as hard as indicated in the pic the plant will be set back. Obviously, any plant should be kept in bounds. But save the heavy pruning on them til late Winter.
I pruned those butterfly bushes back that hard at the worst possible time of the year because they look terrible and were ruining the bed. Which is why they are coming out in Nov. Each August we have an event here at the nursery for all of our backyard growers and I wanted the place to look nice. But I’m sure those plants won’t be set back by much. They sure look a lot better than they did before I pruned them. But they are so vigorous, I’m giving them away.
Dianna B. says
I planted my first 3 butterfly bushes two springs ago, one got huge, two got big but not as big as the one, Not knowing how to trim them back, I took a chance and cut them back to about 12″ like you did in this article. Two survived and did well this summer but the biggest one died. Of course last winter was extremely bitter cold, several shrubs died here.
I do have a question if you have time, We have vegetable beds and had a wet summer. Moss has grown in many of the beds, especially the beds that have shade a part of the day. Should we just till that under or should we shovel it out of the beds? Thanks! ~Dianna
I’d just till the moss in and probably add some agricultural lime to the garden. Most soils become acid over time and moss grows on acid soils. Of course this is true in the north. In southern states soils are more alkeline.
Dianna B. says
Thanks so much Mike! We are in Pennsylvania, near Gettysburg. Will try the lime. We had bought soil that was enriched, the beds have been through 3 seasons. We were wondering if and when we should add something to them. so this news helps. Thanks again. ~Dianna
I live in Gold Country in No. CA and here we usually don’t prune until Spring but I have cut it back earlier with no problems. I was wondering about pruning Crepe Myrtles ? My elevation is about 2200′ Some snow but never lasts very long.
We don’t have Crepe Myrtle here in Ohio but all that I see in the southern states they trim hard when they are dormant. I’m sure you can trim non dormant plants without a problem, but if you are going to do heavy pruning, doing so when dormant is better.
I’m in north GA. Here, we prune crape myrtles in Jan-Feb.
Didn’t know deadheading would encourage new blooms, thanks for the advice! I got the funniest looking buddleia in the mail, (usually the supplier is great) I will be happy now to prune it right down for next year.
Regarding the pictures of the two plants that were pruned to 12 inches, the first picture is a Butterfly Bush, but the second picture looks like a Hibiscus plant, and the canes are hollow like a hibiscus, so is it a hibiscus plant? Thanks.
Nice call! Here’s the deal. I’m one person and I’m no longer the 25 year old energizer bunny that I once was. I can’t do it all and my assistant took these photos and created this article. But you are right and you are very observant. In that bed I trimmed both butterfly bush and a couple of Hibiscus and apparently she didn’t catch that.
As much as I love to, I just can’t do it all and this time of year I prefer to be in the nursery working with the plants and other projects. I spend less time writing this time of year.
Donald R Dugan Sr says
I have some Privet plants, started from cuttings. They were transplanted into quart pots this spring. There are several that the leaves are turning brown and shriveling up and the plants are dying/dead. What can I do to save the rest of my plants and what is wrong to begin with?
My guess is they dried out in those smaller pots. It happens easily. Either shift them to a larger pot or just plant them in a bed.
It’s imperative, if you are going to grow butterfly bush at all, to dead head the flowers before they produce seed. It is an invasive plant that does nothing for the propagation of butterflies. Plant butterfly weed instead.
Thanks for this blog, Mike. Am home with a virus and that bush is along side a very very overgrown forsythia. I plan to root the cuttings of that ….as soon as I work up enough energy to prune all of them. !! the butterfly bushes are gigantic..and I’ll give them a therapuetic prune too!!
About a month ago I was able to save two nice big stumps from the trash man. Guess who has little white flowers on New shoots on those ugly old roots. I do! Can I make Simi hardwood cuttings in October? I wonder…. I’m going to wrap my big narly New friends in straw to help them make the winter…that’s for sure. The one clump is big as round as an outdoor trash can and half as tall with the roots. Do the flowers start white then turn purple or am I lucky enough to find a white flowering one…I wonder.
Still very proud that 3 of my 5 Viburnum cuttings made it and are growing like weeds. I give all the credit to that Espoma starter fert with microriza… I’m very impressed. I planted little white gumpo azaleas for a lady and they boomed 3 times while tripling in size…very impressive if you ask me. Mike, you ever try that bag of fert on your stuff? Well, I have to get out there and check on my babies… LOL. I’m looking for a pair of 4xlt bibs so I look just like you… You are my plant guru hero, please keep up the good work. After the accident I was pretty depressed…your videos opened a new door…and turned on a new light for me. I look foward to seeing your new stuff…give those donkeys a scratch on the head…they are just so cool! Big Dave in Pa.
Roger that, I will most certainly scratch the donkeys on the head for you. Right now I’m building them a new house that will be much warmer this winter. They’re going underground a bit! I’ll post pics when it’s done.
thanks for the tips. I have a crazy wild rosebush I am hoping to root and replant in other parts of my gardens. I appreciate all your great advice and will get that root compound and start my cuttings.
You go girl! Just keep making those baby plants.
Mike, I’m in the doghouse. I have a retired AAAA type engineer hubby, and I recruited him to get started on making little plants this year. He went out before I had the screen house done, the mister system set up, and started making three ton boxes to hold sand-trust me you will get a hernia picking them p, then spent a whole weekend trying to get one stuck.(he got about 90 I think) I was pretty ill and couldn’t help and he overthought everything.
My heath took a good turn, and I got out there today and calmly trimmed some things up, and spent the afternoon with my new corona pruners (thank you, they are GREAT to work with, my hubby had a fit about me getting those too) trimming up those prunings and made vatloads of little cuttings that are soaking in their rooting compound until tomorrow morning; then I’ll stick them.
He’s mad at me because I made it look so easy. And I got so much done. I TOLD him to watch your videos first… just thought I’d let you know I’m actually rather happy despite his offering my new roomie is the lawnmower because I’ll have to sleep in the shed. Thanks Mike, this is one I’d rather be in trouble for… heh.
Well . . . I guess I’m glad you’re happy. Lots of people over think much of this. If only people could spend a day with us. Everything we do happens quickly and it’s just fine. I’m glad he’s willing to help and eventually he’ll figure out where this is going and that it’s not a bad thing.
I have an mature ornamental peach tree that has gone nuts!! Prune now? Also, is it possible to transplant? It is about 10′ tall. Thanks.
You have been talking about pruning, I have a mature ornamental peach tree that has gone nuts!! It is also leaning-prune and/or transplant?? Your advice greatly appreciated.
Prune it and stake it to get it growing straight. Pruning it will do it good and not harm it.
Hi Mike! I just purchased a Japanese Red maple Tree its about * Feet tall it needs a bigger pot the leaves are curling up what would you do it still have good leaves but what what would you do with it
I plant it in the ground if at all possible. Plants do best in the ground. If you can’t do that, then by all means get it into a bigger pot.
Charline Jolly says
And they are a great starter project for a beginning propagator. Soooo easy to grow from cuttings.