This section is from the book "Nature's Garden", by Neltje Blanchan. Also available from Amazon: Nature's Garden; An Aid To Knowledge Of Our Wild Flowers And Their Insect Visitors.
Flowers - Fragrant, white, small, tubular, hairy within, 4-parted, the long, yellow-tipped style far protruding; the florets clustered on a fleshy receptacle, in round heads (about 1 in. across), elevated on long peduncles from leaf-axils or ends of branches. Stem: A shrub 3 to 12 ft. high. Leaves: Opposite or in small whorls, petioled, oval, tapering at the tip, entire.
Button-Bush Or Honey Balls. (Cephatanfhus occidentalis.)
Preferred Habitat - Beside streams and ponds; swamps, low ground.
Flowering Season - June - September.
Distribution - New Brunswick to Florida and Cuba, westward to Arizona and California.
Delicious fragrance, faintly suggesting jessamine, leads one over marshy ground to where the button-bush displays dense, creamy-white globes of bloom, heads that Miss Lounsberry aptly likens to " little cushions full of pins." Not far away the sweet breath of the white-spiked clethra comes at the same season, and one cannot but wonder why these two bushes, which are so beautiful when most garden shrubbery is out of flower, should be left to waste their sweetness, if not on desert air exactly, on air that blows far from the homes of men. Partially shaded and sheltered positions near a house, if possible, suit these water lovers admirably. Cultivation only increases their charms. We have not so many fragrant wild flowers that any can be neglected. John Burroughs, who included the blossoms of several trees in his list of fragrant ones, found only thirty-odd species in New England and New York.
Examine a well-developed ball of bloom on the button-bush under a magnifying glass to appreciate its perfection of detail. After counting two hundred and fifty minute florets, tightly clustered, one's tired eyes give out. A honey-ball, with a well of nectar in each of these narrow tubes, invites hosts of insects to its hospitable feast; but only visitors long and slender of tongue can drain the last drop, therefore the vicinity of this bush is an excellent place for a butterfly collector to carry his net. Butterflies are by far the most abundant visitors; honey-bees also abound, bumblebees, carpenter and mining bees, wasps, a horde of flies, and some destructive beetles; but the short tongues can reach little nectar. Why do the pistils of the florets protrude so far? Even before each minute bud opened, all its pollen had been shed on the tip of the style, to be in a position to be removed by the first visitor alighting on the ball of bloom. After the removal of the pollen from the still immature stigma, it becomes sticky, to receive the importation from other blossoms. Did not the floret pass through two distinct stages, first male, then female, self-fertilization, not cross-fertilization, would be the inevitable result. The dull red and green seed-balls, which take on brown and bronze tints after frost, make beautiful additions to an autumn bouquet. The bush is next of kin to the coffee.