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The GCA Announces The Montine McDaniel Freeman Medal: Plant of the Year


February 04, 2021

Cephalanthus occidentalis

Cephalanthus occidentalis, commonly known as buttonbush or honey bells, has been named the 2021 Plant of the Year by The Garden Club of America (GCA). Annually, the GCA identifies a stellar North American native plant to receive the Montine McDaniel Freeman Medal: GCA Plant of the Year.

Native plants are important because they adapt to local environmental conditions. They require far less water, saving time, and money. Plus, native plants provide vital food sources and habitat for many pollinator insects, birds, and other species of wildlife. 

A pollinator and butterfly magnet, Cephalanthus occidentalis is renowned for the number of butterflies it attracts—swallowtails, monarchs, and skippers as well as the Titan sphinx moth, hydrangea sphinx moth, and royal walnut moth. Hummingbirds are also regular visitors. Buttonbush was commercially introduced in 1735, primarily for beekeepers (hence the common name, honey bells) who cultivated this deciduous shrub as a pollen and nectar resource for honeybees. It is also a favorite of numerous North American native bees including bumblebees, yellow-faced bees, green sweat bees, and long-horned bees. 

Tolerant of many types of soil, grown in full sun or part shade, and resistant to deer and diseases, the plant grows naturally from three to fifteen feet tall and up to ten feet wide, but responds well to vigorous pruning and can easily be maintained to a preferred height. Buttonbush is found naturally on stream edges where its fibrous roots prevent erosion. It can tolerate standing water but is also able to withstand dry conditions. Forming colonies in wet soil, it can also be grown as a single specimen in drier soil. The plant’s USDA Hardiness Range is listed as Zones 5-9, but research shows that the plant can be found in most of the lower 48 states. 

To top off the list of incredibly positive attributes, buttonbush is an attractive and useful plant for floral designers. Its unique flowers and fruits are marvelous elements in arrangements.          

Honorable Mention was awarded to Prunus mexicana, Mexican plum tree. This North American native plant is a small and highly adaptable fruit tree, covering a broad range of hardiness, that thrives with little maintenance. Despite its name, the Mexican plum tree grows across a wide range of the United States. Its showy spring blooms, occurring before leaves emerge, offer nectar to many native bees and butterflies. It is a host plant for the tiger swallowtail butterfly and cecropia moth. Resistant to pollution and unattractive to deer, the plant’s shape and coarse, furrowed, gray bark add outstanding structure to garden spaces. To top off these attributes, the plums can be made into delicious jams and jellies. The plant thrives in USDA Hardiness Zones 6-9.

Special Recognition was awarded to Ehretia anacua, sandpaper tree or anacua. Ehretia anacua is a stately tree, native to Texas, that provides four seasons of interest. Highly fragrant flowers provide food for insects and butterflies in the spring. Yellow, orange, and red berries in the late spring and summer are loved not only by birds, but also by growers who make jam from the fruits. Early settlers in Texas actually used the coarse leaves for sandpaper. Resistant to wind, heat, and pollution, anacua is rarely bothered by disease. A unique characteristic of anacua is the manner in which its multiple sapling trunks tend to merge into one furrowed trunk with limbs emerging from the intertwined trunks. USDA Hardiness Zones 8-11. 

Please check with local experts about the hardiness of these plants in your area.

The Montine McDaniel Freeman Medal was established in 1995 to highlight underutilized, but highly worthy, native trees, shrubs, groundcovers, vines, and perennials. The goal is to draw attention to select native plants, encourage their use in the landscape, and make them familiar to gardeners and more available in nurseries. The annual medal selection is carried out by a group of highly respected horticulturists from across the country. Woody and herbaceous plants are nominated in alternate years. The 2021 winners were selected from 23 woody plants nominated by members of GCA clubs.

The medal honors Montine McDaniel Freeman (1915-98), a member of the New Orleans Town Gardeners, Inc., and was established by her son and daughter-in-law. Mrs. Freeman was an outstanding horticulturist and was particularly enamored of native plants. Her 93-acre Beechwood Gardens in Covington, Louisiana boasted more than 4,000 azaleas, camellias, and southern magnolias. 


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