Its blossoms are the color of claret stains on white linen, and it is about as welcome in formal gardens as a clumsy tippler at the dinner table. But mark my words: the joe-pye weed will have its day even in the snootier precincts of horticulture.
For the next two months, its sunset pink cumulus blooms will overspread almost every sodden meadow, and butterflies everywhere will forsake their namesake bushes for the humble scrub weed named Joe. Taller than the surrounding milkweeds and ragweeds on their tiptoes, it graciously receives these winged courtiers in their fluttering finery. Even Monarchs come to pay homage. They know the joe-pye weed’s place, even if we don’t.
This plant, which fills late summer with new color when other perennials begin to fade, would be a great addition to gardens in difficult damp and sunny areas. When cultivated, they rise to six, seven, or eight feet or more on a whorl of saw-toothed leaves, providing backbone and structure to borders and attracting not just butterflies, but nectar-starved pollinators of every stripe. But there is something about the name that prevents people from taking it seriously as a garden plant. They think of it more as, well… a weed.
Marketing wizards will catch on eventually, doing for the joe-pye weed what they did for the slime head fish (orange roughy) and the Patagonian toothfish (Chilean sea bass). Until then, between you, me, and the butterflies, its true cachet will be our little secret.
There are two versions of how the joe-pye weed got its name. The most common one traces it to a 18th Century Native American medicine man named Joe Pye, who traveled the length of New England treating fevers — typhoid fever in particular — with an infusion made from the plant’s leaves. The other story asserts that joe-pye is a corruption of the Native American word for typhoid, jopi.
Apocryphal or not, these stories suggest that the medicinal properties of the plant were easy to ply in colonial times, and it’s no wonder given the faint but pleasing cedar and vanillin scents given off by its crushed leaves. Various native tribes used decoctions and poultices of joe-pye weed to treat a range of ailments from urinary tract infections and kidney problems to burns and inflamed joints. Its medicinal uses may account for some of the other names it picked up along the way, including purple boneset and kidney root.
Joe-pye weed does have a formal botanical name, Eupatorium purpureum, which suggests that its humble status is not universally accepted. The Latin word Eupatorium means “of a noble father.” It is derived from the name of Mithradates Eupator, or Mithradates the Great, the King of Pontus in Asia Minor from 123 to 63 BC. He earned a place in history as a formidable and respected enemy of Rome.
There is another common name for the plant that I like even more than joe-pye weed. It turns every connotation of that plain-old-joe name upside down. It is Queen of the Meadow.
Marketers take note. The Monarchs already have.
Now let us raise our glass to the Queen of the Meadow… oops!