2020-06-28 sc-barryp1

Sugar Shack, a newly released variety of Buttonbush, features exotic white flowers. Barry Fugatt/for the Tulsa World

Mankind’s love of nature has long been celebrated in songs, poems and essays. It’s worth noting, however, that nature’s love of mankind isn’t always reciprocal.

Recently, I visited a friend who owns gorgeous property along the Illinois River. The weather was hot, and after grabbing a bottle of water, we set out on a hike through the lush foliage of native trees, shrubs and vines that grow along the swift-flowing river. After months of sheltering-in-place, the escape into nature was emotionally delicious.

Content to enjoy the sights and sounds of undisturbed nature, we said very little as we pushed our way through the diverse and lovely plant life that lines the banks of the beautiful waterway. Nature didn’t disappoint. She served up amazing sights: huge turtles (presumably loggerheads) lying on gravel banks, graceful long-legged water birds, gorgeous white-tail deer (who nonchalantly watched as we passed by) and an enormous variety of native plant species.

All went well, or so I thought.

After returning to my friend’s rustic cabin and cracking open several ice-cold bottles of adult beverages, I noticed a bit of itching along my legs and around my waistband. And by the time I got home that evening, I was in full scratch mode. Along with all her great beauty, nature also served up a generous portion of blood-sucking chiggers. By bedtime, I was covered in quarter-size whelps the likes of which calamine lotion had little calming effect.

Even so, I wouldn’t change a thing. What’s a few chigger bites compared to nature’s beauty? Next time, however, I’ll bring along a large jar of insect repellent.

Walk along the banks of many Ozark lakes and streams and you may spot a beautiful native flowering shrub known as Buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis), a species I’ve long enjoyed in my garden. Like so many native plant species, Buttonbush has been hybridized and improved by talented plant breeders. The wild Buttonbush is a charmer; but Sugar Shack, a newly released variety by Proven Winners, is extra special.

Left unpruned, our native Buttonbush will quickly grow to a height and spread of 6 to 8 feet, a tad large for many urban gardens. Sugar Shack, on the other hand, has all the lovely features of its native parent but without the size. It tops out at 4 feet, a much more manageable size.

Sugar Shack’s exotic white flowers are especially stunning. Spherical, golf ball-size flowers appear at the tips of new foliage in mid-June. The white flowers are gorgeous against glossy dark green foliage. And they are a magnet to bees and butterflies. Once pollination has ended, Sugar Shack’s lovely white flowers are replaced by eye-catching reddish-orange seed pods.

Buttonbush prefers moist low-lying areas and performs beautifully in urban bog gardens or along the edge of an urban water garden. It may, however, be successfully grown in sunny, less moist areas if careful attention is given to supplemental watering during peak summer heat. A thorough watering every other day keeps the one in my garden lush and happy.

Unfortunately, Buttonbush is not commonly available at local garden centers. There are on-line mail order sources, however. Also, last week I noticed that Tulsa’s Southwood Landscape and Garden Center had eight, 3-gallon Sugar Shack varieties for sale.

Buttonbush truly is “as cute as a button.”

Barry Fugatt is director of horticulture at the Tulsa Garden Center and Linnaeus Teaching Garden. He may be reached by email: bfuatt@tulsagardencenter.com

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