Joe Pye Weed (Eupatorium purpureum)
Gravel Root, Trumpet Weed, Purple Boneset, Queen of the Meadow, Kidney Root, Mist-flower, Snakeroot, Hempweed, Jopi Weed
About This Plant
Stately Joe Pye Weed, also known by the common names “Queen of the Meadow” and “Gravel Root” is a native North American perennial herbaceous plant. It grows up to six feet tall, sometimes more, and has a long history in both folklore and medicinal uses associated with it. It grows in USDA zones 4-9 and possibly in zone 10 if the summers are not too humid. It flowers late in the season and due to its size is great along a back border or where you need to make a gentle transition from a highly gardened space to the natural landscape beyond. It is useful for planting in damp areas as it naturally grows near ponds and streams. While it’s mostly grown now for its landscape value, it was once used extensively as a medicinal plant. It readily reseeds itself.
Joe Pye Weed’s flower heads are generally large domed, or flat-topped umbel clusters of small purplish, pinkish-purple, or whitish tubular blossoms. These vanilla-scented flowers are arranged in clusters of five to seven and are a favorite of bees and butterflies. It flowers from August or September through the Fall. The flowers give way to seed heads that persist throughout the winter adding an interesting visual to the Winter garden.
It is a sturdy-stemmed plant that may bow a bit under the weight of the large flower heads, especially after heavy rainfall. Some varieties of Joe Pye Weed have hollow stems, but E. purpureum usually has a solid stem with only a small central cavity. The leaves are arranged in whorls of three to six along the stem that are about six inches apart. Leaves are oblong-ovate, or lanceolate, pointed, feathery-veined, and coarsely serrate. They are softly haired along the veins and about 8 to 12 inches long and three to four inches wide. Leaves are dark green in color and have purple leaf margins. It has purple bands at the joints, or leaf nodes, that are about one inch wide.
The roots consist of a blackish or purplish-brown woody caudex from which proceed numerous long fibers. Younger roots are white internally and older roots are yellowish-white. The roots are thick and woody and have a scent resembling old hay and the taste is slightly bitter, aromatic, and faintly astringent but not unpleasant.
Joe Pye Weed, in its natural environment, grows in moist meadows, pasturelands, and along the edges of woods and streams. It is often found as a wildflower in disturbed areas like construction zones. It is erect in habit and forms clumps. It grows throughout the Midwest as well as northern and western states.
Joe Pye Weed has historically been used as a healing tonic. It is named after a legendary, and potentially fictitious, Indian healer that used a decoction of the plant to cure typhus fever in colonial America. Joe Pye Weed may be named after Joseph Shauquthqueat, and 18th- and early 19th-century Mohican sachem who lived part of his life in Massachusetts and part of his life in New York. He is said to have used decoctions of the plant to cure typhus or typhoid, stopping an epidemic early on in Massachusetts history. Others claim the legendary figure was made up by colonists of European descent in a “traveling Indian show”. The first time the name of the plant was published was in 1818 when botanist Amos Easton used it in his book Manual of Botany of the Northern and Middle States of America. He stated that the President of Williams College used a tea made from the plant to cure a fever.
There are over forty species of the genus Eupatorium. They hybridize widely in nature, making identification a challenge, even for botanists. The name of the genus comes from the Greek name Mithridates Eupator, King of Pontus around 115 BCE, also known a Eupator Dionysius. He made his mark in herbal history because of his intensive study of poisons and the preparation of antidotes. Supposedly, his father was killed by poisoning and he feared the same fate. He is said to have immunized himself against poison by taking increasingly large, nonlethal doses on a daily basis. One plant he experimented with is supposed to have been a member of this genus.
Joe Pye Weed can be grown from seed. The seeds will benefit from stratifying for 10 days at 40 degrees Fahrenheit. The seeds can be planted indoors six weeks prior to the last expected Spring frost. Cover seeds only lightly and keep evenly moist. The seeds should germinate in two to three weeks.
Joe Pye Weed can also be grown from cuttings taken in the Spring, and by division.
Seedlings should be hardened off prior to transplanting outside. Joe Pye Weed can grow four to six feet across, so leave plenty of room between them and their neighbors.
In general, the varieties of Joe Pye Weed thrive in soils that are reasonably fertile and not too dry. They prefer full sun but will tolerate partial shade. Too much shade will affect the plant’s growth and cause it to flop over. It is a good plant for damp areas as it naturally grows near ponds and streams. E. purpureum can tolerant drier conditions and more shade than the other varieties but does enjoy regular, deep watering and consistently moist soils, especially during its first year. It may need additional water in the hottest periods of the summer to avoid wilting. Try not to let the soil it’s planted in remain dry for more than a few days at a time, especially during hot weather. It is good to place a layer of mulch around the roots to help retain moisture.
Joe Pye Weed can grow six feet tall, so finding the proper placement of it in your landscape is important. It also is a late bloomer so placing it next to earlier bloomers allows it to fill in once its neighbors fade. The plant will reseed itself, so it’s a good idea to thin the plants occasionally. The plant will go dormant and die back once cold weather arrives. You can prune the dead foliage to about four to eight inches off the ground at this time, or wait until early Spring. Don’t wait too long to prune it in the Spring however as the plant blooms on the new season’s growth.
For medicinal uses, leaves can be harvested from the plant at any time and the root can be dug after a frost. This plant dries well.
The seeds are mature when the large purple flower heads have begun fading and turn brown. The hundreds of seeds are attached to white tufts of fluff which will carry them away in the wind. Place a paper bag over the seed heads and shake the flower stalk to free the seeds.
- Repels mosquitos when burned
- Seeds and flowers used to create dye in the shades of red and pink
While considered edible, Joe Pye Weed isn’t typically used in cooking.
The medicinal attribute that Joe Pye Weed is most known for is its reputation for dissolving existing gallstones and kidney stones and preventing the formation of new ones. This is how it earned the common name “Gravel Root”. It is also a popular remedy for gout and rheumatism, both of which are associated with excess uric acid.
Joe Pye Weed has been used to relieve constipation, to treat urinary tract infections, and as a diuretic. It is said to have a specific action upon the urinary tract, increasing both the fluid and solid constituents of the urine.
The entire plant can be used but the root has the strongest effect. It yields its medicinal properties to both water (infusion or decoction) and alcohol.
Joe Pye Weed is a native North American perennial that is found in all parts of the U.S. with the exception of the deep south and the far north.