When I travel for lectures, I often get to lead, or sometimes follow along on, plant walks. If it’s a plant walk I’m leading, I make a point to explain that just because a plant was used for a certain purpose historically, it isn’t necessarily used for that same purpose today.
I always point out that when you identify a medicinal or culinary plant, you need to know more about the plant than simply, “Here’s heal-all (Prunella vulgaris), which was used historically for healing wounds.”
I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve heard someone claim that lamb’s-ears (Stachys byzantina) was “used for emergency bandages during the Civil War.” It’s lovely to imagine that soldiers just reached out and plucked a handful of the fluffy-leafed gray plant and applied it to their wounds.
But the fact is, in all of the research I’ve done on Civil War plants over the last 20 years, I’ve never found a reliable reference to verify that lamb’s-ears leaves were used as bandages — spiderwebs and clothing were, but not lamb’s-ears. And while the plant might have been found in an occasional East Coast garden, it wasn’t grown widely enough to serve as bandages for the wounded.
Not long ago I was tagging along on a plant walk in an eastern state. As is often the case in such walks, there was a group of avid listeners following dutifully behind the leader, who was knowledgeable, and a second group of participants that was not able to keep up. Not being a fast walker, I quietly followed in the second group, listening and enjoying being outdoors. Since the leader had gone far ahead and none of us could hear what he said, people began to talk among themselves.
Soon, one woman emerged as the impromptu leader of our group. Since I was in an unfamiliar area, I listened carefully, hoping to learn something. The woman pointed out spicebush (Lindera benzoin), which I knew well. She mentioned it being useful in alleviating fevers and the flu, uses with which I was familiar.
She pointed out jewelweed (Impatiens capensis), saying “This keeps away poison ivy. You just plant it around your house and poison ivy won’t grow.” I watched the faces of the people, most of whom have small herb shops and gardens, to see if any of them would challenge her erroneous statement. None did. (While jewelweed will keep poison ivy oils from penetrating the skin if applied within minutes of exposure, it will not, unfortunately, keep poison ivy from growing.)
Finally, someone pointed out Joe Pye weed (Eupatorium purpureum) and asked what it was. It was just beginning to bloom and looked quite spectacular with its pink-purple blossoms.
The well-meaning leader immediately answered, “It’s Joe Pye weed. Indians used it to make pie.”
I stood there, waiting for her to laugh, but she kept walking. I couldn’t keep quiet any longer and said, “Excuse me. What did you say Joe Pye weed was used for?”
She repeated her assertion that American Indians used the herb to make pies. I didn’t want to embarrass the woman, but she was spouting so much misinformation that I had to speak up.
“Joe Pye weed was named for a man. It’s spelled ‘P-y-e’ not ‘p-i-e,” I said as politely and lightheartedly as I could. “It has nothing to do with pie, the dessert. It’s a medicinal plant.”
The woman just shrugged and walked on, unfazed. Shortly after, two ladies who had been hanging behind the group, sidled up to me and said, “Thank you for speaking up. She was so uninformed that we didn’t even want to listen to the information she was giving out.”
So remember: Even if someone has spoken with authority or identified a plant, it’s always good to get a second opinion. And if someone tells you that Joe Pye weed is used for making pies, check a good plant identification book!
Jim Long educates and gardens from his farm, Long Creek Herbs, in the Ozarks Mountains.