Joe-pye weed, Eupatorium maculatum

November 29, 2011

The earth has many keys.
Where melody is not
Is the unknown peninsula.
Beauty is nature’s fact.

Emily Dickinson

One of our late summer’s natural beauties is the flowering Joe-pye weed, Eupatorium maculatum. This member of the Asteraceae, the aster family, the largest family of vascular plants, has some interesting etymology. The genus name Eupatorium, comes from Mithridates Eupator (134BC-63BC), a king of Pontus, and also the first to have recorded the use of this plant medicinally. The binomial name maculatum, meaning “spotted,” refers to the purple spots on the plant’s stem.  

Recent research into this large botanic family’s taxonomy has created some generic reclassifications and renaming that our horticulture department continues to follow. Additionally, there are several stories regarding the Joe Pye common name. One claims that he was a Native American healer who used the plant to cure typhoid and other ills. Other anecdotes allude to various white or native medicine men, but all recall the long history of this genus’ roots being used for a tonic, emetic, expectorant, and/or diuretic. There is also lore of the Meskwaki Indians, of the Great Lakes region, believing in its use as an aphrodisiac,”…a love medicine to be nibbled when speaking to women when they are in the wooing mood.” Nevertheless, we caution all that it is now known to actually contain toxic compounds, that can cause liver damage. These same compounds seem to have no ill effects for the numerous different butterfly species whose caterpillars feed on its leaves, and adult butterflies which collect nectar from its flowers.

We at Mount Auburn, along with many gardeners, are more apt to grow this for its ornamental looks rather than its purported medicinal qualities. This erect, six-foot tall plant, when in full flower, displays soccer-ball-size corymbs of violet flower heads, which are lightly, sweet-scented. Joe-pye weed prefers to grow in moist soil. On your next visit to Mount Auburn, enjoy the joys of Joe-pye at our butterfly garden, at Azalea Path on Willow Pond, and at the flagpole planting on Meadow Road.

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About the Author: Jim Gorman

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