If you’re out for a walk in the summertime and think it’s odd that the lilacs are in full bloom this late, you’re not wrong. Lilacs and butterfly bushes (known as summer lilacs) look similar, and most folks won’t even think twice about the one blooming at the “wrong time” of the year.
But is the blooming season the only difference between these two gorgeous attractors? They both have incredibly heady, alluring scents, gorgeous arrays of colorful blooms, and draw in butterflies and hummingbirds like it’s their sole job. So, what’s the difference? Let’s take a look and see why it’s important to know which plant is which.
Butterfly Bush vs. Lilac
|Buddleja davidii, over 140 species
|Syringa, approximately 25 species
|The bush may grow up to 15 feet tall, with long, jagged-edged leaves. The flowers may bloom in purple, white with orange or yellow centers, pink, blue, maroon, magenta, or yellow.
|Lilacs may be anywhere from 5 feet to 20 feet tall, with deep green compound or lobed leaves. The flowers come in purple, lavender, pale yellow, white, red, pink, or blue.
|Butterfly bushes are most commonly used as ornamental garden additions to attract pollinators. This plant also has some medicinal properties for external use.
|Lilacs are used for ornamental garden flowers, herbal plants, firewood, handicraft, edible garnishes, and medicinal purposes.
|Origin and growing preferences:
|The butterfly bush as we know it now originated in China. It needs full sun and well-drained soil to thrive.
|Lilacs originated in both Asia and Europe. They thrive in cold climates in full sun and well-drained soil.
|Special features and fun facts:
|Recent research shows the true origins of the plant as coming out of southern Africa, despite the modern cultivations coming from China.
|Lilacs symbolize first love and the Easter holiday. The founding fathers of America grew lilacs and wrote about their experiments with them.
Key Differences Between Butterfly Bush and Lilac
When you’re looking at photos of these two flowering shrubs, you might not be able to tell the difference at first glance. The two plants have similar-looking flowers that many have mistaken for each other. However, they bloom at different times of the year, come from different plant families, and one is edible while the other isn’t.
Butterfly Bush vs. Lilac: Classification
Named for botanist and vicar of Farmbridge in Essex, Reverend Adam Buddle, the buddleia/buddleja is more commonly known as the butterfly bush, thanks to its qualities that attract butterflies and other pollinators. The bush also may be called the summer lilac, which is a misnomer, as the two plants are in different families altogether.
The lilac comes from the genus Syringa, which has about 25 species of plants that bloom in springtime and are technically a part of the olive family. The two plants look remarkably similar by the bloom alone, and both are deciduous shrubs. But the similarities end there.
Butterfly Bush vs. Lilac: Description
The strongest resemblance between these two plants is their literal appearance. If you’re not sure how to differentiate them from each other, you might not know which plant you’re looking at.
A deciduous shrub, the butterfly bush may grow up to 15 feet tall, with long leaves with jagged edges. The flowers bloom from mid-summer into autumn. This is one of the key ways to tell the plants apart if the visual cues don’t do it for you, as lilacs bloom in spring. Lilacs grow to varying heights, depending on the variety. They range from dwarfs that reach 5 to 10 feet in height to larger varieties that may reach 20 feet in height. Lilac leaves are deep green and either compound or lobed.
Butterfly bushes also come in a wide range of colors, though purple remains their most common shade. Additionally, they may bloom in white flowers with orange or yellow centers or may come in pink, blue, yellow, maroon, or magenta. Lilacs may have single or double blooms that come in deep purple, pink, lavender, blue, red, white, or pale yellow.
Butterfly Bush vs. Lilac: Uses
One major difference between the two plants is that the lilac flower is edible while the butterfly bush flower is not. Because of the similar appearance, it’s important to ensure that if you choose to eat the flowers you are for sure eating lilacs and not butterfly bushes.
Butterfly bush flowers are not incredibly toxic or anything, but they may give you unpleasant symptoms. They will not kill animals or children. They’re naturally deer resistant, as well. On the other hand, their nectar attracts butterflies and hummingbirds. Lilacs also attract the same creatures, drawing in the many nectar sippers we often desire in the garden space.
Butterfly bush may be used for external herbal purposes, however. It has antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and photo-protective properties that are craved in skin care products, so the invasive plant is sometimes adapted for use in this area. Lilacs, though, may be eaten as well as used externally in both skin and hair care products. Lilac flowers may be recommended as an edible garnish or a floral complement to things like honey for a unique flavor. Lilac wood is also used for engraving, knife handles, and musical instruments.
Butterfly Bush vs. Lilac: Origins and Growing Preferences
Butterfly bushes grow easily in many regions, but the modern plant that we have today originated in China. The plant has more than 140 species that have migrated across Asia to the rest of the world. Most lilac species also originated in Asia, but the common lilac (most common in the USA) originated in eastern Europe. The plant was cultivated by the French and many hybrids came out of their work with these plants.
Butterfly bushes do best in full sun (partial shade produces fewer blooms) and require well-drained soil, though the soil can be low-nutrient. They’re easy to care for and propagate, which has caused them to become an invasive species, with the seeds carried by the wind and spread.
Lilacs do well in colder climates and actually need some cold-initiated dormancy for them to bloom – meaning they do not do well in dry, hot climates. They can tolerate rocky soil and sloped land and require full sun and well-drained soil.
Butterfly Bush vs. Lilac: Special Features and Fun Facts
While the butterfly bush and lilac do look remarkably similar and share some of the same qualities, the two plants have varying histories that give them their unique intrigue points.
First, lilacs symbolize Easter and first love. The common lilac is also the state flower of New Hampshire, meant to symbolize the “hardy nature” of the women and men of the state. George Washington wrote about his transplants of lilacs that already existed in his garden, meaning the plant had already migrated to the USA by 1785. Thomas Jefferson wrote about his lilac planting methods in his Garden Book.
On the other hand, the butterfly bush as we know it today originated in China, but a recent study done by researcher John Chau revealed that the plant originally came from Africa as far back as history can be concluded. He discovered this origin by collecting samples from across the world and cross-examining their DNA sequences.
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- University of Maryland, Available here: https://extension.umd.edu/resource/butterfly-bush
- The Practical Herbalist, Available here: https://thepracticalherbalist.com/herbal-memoirs/lilac-an-edible-and-medicinal-treat/
- Chinese Herbs Healing, Available here: https://www.chineseherbshealing.com/proven-herbal-remedies/butterfly-bush.html
- King County, Available here: https://kingcounty.gov/services/environment/animals-and-plants/noxious-weeds/weed-identification/butterfly-bush.aspx
- Burke Museum, Available here: https://www.burkemuseum.org/news/origin-butterfly-bush
- The Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University, Available here: https://arboretum.harvard.edu/events/lilacs-at-the-arnold-arboretum/lilacs-read-more/