Herb to Know: Joe-Pye Weed

Joe-Pye Weed

| August/September 1996

Joe Pye Weed

Eupatorium dubium, E. fistulosum, E. maculatum, E. purpureum, E. steelei
• (Yew-puh-TOR-ee-um)
• Family Compositae
• Hardy perennial

You may need a botanist to sort out which one is which, but any of the Joe-Pye weeds can add a lively splash of color to the late-summer garden. Now grown mainly for their landscape value, these stately ­natives were once utilized ex­tensively as medicinal herbs.

The genus Eupatorium comprises about 40 species of mostly perennial, chiefly tropical herbs and shrubs. The genus name honors Mithradates VI Eupator, king of Pontus (an ancient country in northern Anatolia in Asia Minor), who died in 63 b.c. The king is remembered among botanists and toxicologists for having been “one of the first to study intensively the art of poisoning and the preparation of antidotes.” He is said to have immunized himself against poison by taking increasingly large, nonlethal doses. One plant he experimented with is supposed to have been a member of the genus.

About five species of North American eupatoriums are known as Joe-Pye weeds. The origin of the common name is uncertain. The most prevalent theory holds that it refers to a Colonial-era Native American named Joe Pye, who is said to have used one of the species to cure typhus. Another is that Joe Pye was a nineteenth-century white “Indian theme promoter” who used the root of one of the species to induce sweating in cases of typhus. The earliest use of this name dates to 1810–1820.

The Joe-Pye weeds are all tall, erect herbs with leaves arranged in whorls on the stem. The flower heads are generally large, domed or flat-topped clusters of small purplish tubular disk flowers. The species differ in leaf shape and veining; convexity of the flower cluster; number of flowers per head; and hairiness, color, and hollowness of the stem. All bloom from July to September. They hybridize widely in nature, making identification a challenge even for botanists.

Spotted Joe-Pye weed (E. maculatum) has stout, speckled or purplish stems 2 to 6 feet tall. The sharp-toothed, lance-shaped leaves are in whorls of four to five. Purple to pale lavender flowers are borne in flat-topped clusters. The species is found in moist places, especially in limy soils, mainly in eastern North America but in the north as far west as British Columbia.

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