August Plant of the Month: Joe Pye Weed
The gardens are currently in their late-summer splendor, sort of a last hurrah before the browns and blonds of autumn. Our native butterflies are busy drinking nectar from the goldenrod, butterfly bushes, asters and other August beauties. However, I find that when I look at one late-bloomer in particular, tall with brushy, mauve flowers, I’m plagued by questions, “Who the heck was Joe Pye (Eutrochium purpureum, formerly Eupatorium pupureum), and why does he get his own weed?”
Joe Pye Weed, also known as thoroughwort, is native to the eastern part of North America, and often grows in tallgrass prairies, which are moister than our local, shortgrass steppes. The large, rounded flower clusters provide ample opportunities for bees and butterflies to land and sip, making it a favorite in habitat gardens.
Even the stems are attractive, belying its “weed” title; Joe Pye Weed has tall, upright stems with purple nodes, which set off the blossoms nicely. This plant is hardy to zone 3 and also prefers alkaline soil, a big plus around here. This plant seems to benefit from benign neglect, and its substantial height makes a great statement in a garden border. As a bonus, the leaves give off a vanilla scent when crushed.
With a namesake as lovely as this one, Mr. Joe Pye must have been a worthy fellow. The name does have a long history. Even as early as 1818, this prairie beauty was known as “joe-pye’s weed”, and later in the 19th century, a story circulated about a Native American healer named Joe Pye, who used the plant to cure typhus in New England.
No one has ever found a historical record of Mr. Pye. Even so, many people over the centuries used his namesake as an herbal remedy against malaria, fevers or other complaints. Personally, I wouldn’t recommend it; botanist Thomas Nuttall described the concoction as “strong and bitter…very nauseous”. But, enjoying the sight and fragrance of this hearty native reminds me that the plants regarded as merely pretty, or easy to grow, once could mean life and death to our ancestors.
Posted by Amy Yarger