Learn about growing Joe-Pye weed in the herb garden, including Joe-Pye weed history and a gardening guide.
The common name of Eupatorium purpureum, Joe-Pye weed, is so distinctive that if there were not some tale already devised to explain its origin, we'd probably have to invent one. As it turns out, Joe Pye is said to be the name of an Indian herb doctor who used the plant to treat an outbreak of typhus afflicting the colonists of Massachusetts Bay. The cure was successful, the herb was included in the Europeans' pharmacopoeia, and Joe Pye was thus immortalized.
The tale does seem believable. Joe-Pye weed was a popular Native American medicament, and the colonists almost certainly learned of its use from the Indians. One might even argue that an extract of the herb would have made a relatively effective treatment for typhus, given the limited medical offerings of the day: The sweat-producing, or diaphoretic, properties of the drug could at least have moderated the dangerously high fevers.
Still, it was as a diuretic and treatment for urinary disorders that Joe-Pye enjoyed continued use-hence the common names of gravelroot and kidney root. A tea made from the root was drunk to prevent or dissolve kidney stones, and even to treat gout and rheumatism, both of which are associated with excess uric acid.
Native Americans promoted these uses of the plant, and many more. The Fox Indians left no doubt as to their preferred prescription when they gave the plant a name that means "love medicine to be nibbled when speaking to women when they are in the wooing mood." Other tribes used it as a wash for inflamed joints, or in children's baths, where it was variously believed to impart strength or induce sleep.
Among latter-day Americans, who are evidently more impressed with the wild herb's beauty than its medicinal virtues, the plant has earned yet another common name, Queen of the Meadow. In late summer or early fall, it's difficult not to admire the conspicuous plant as it blooms in fields, along roads, and on wood edges throughout the eastern half of the United States. E. purpureum prefers sites in rich upland woods, though it's sometimes found in more open environments, Its tall, green stalks (often four feet or more in height) support feathery domes of dusty pink or lilac flowers. Its leaves emerge, like those of lilies, in whorls at stately intervals along the stalk. When crushed, this species often emits a distinct odor of vanilla, a quality apparent even in the dried flower heads.
Cultivation of this perennial usually consists of little more than clearing vines and brush away from wild plants, but Joe-Pye can be established easily from rootstock planted in a moist, at least partially sunny, location. Though it's not always the case that gardeners are growing Joe-Pye weed in the herb garden, it certainly deserves a place there, if only to remind us of the contributions of the American Indian to herbal lore.