Joe-Pye weed is a pasture nightmare but a hot perennial ornamental

My father-in-law fought this weed voraciously. It would sometimes fill up the hillsides and bottoms, hiding his cattle. Sometimes it seemed the more he clipped it, the thicker it got. He would turn over in his grave if he saw folks plant it on purpose.

Joe-Pye weed (Eutrochium purpureum) is a common pasture plant that most livestock generally avoid. Because of this, it can be a dominant plant in fields where animals graze. Consequently, less land is available for more desirable forages.

Low palatability means poor meat production, and that’s why my father-in-law disliked it, ironweed, milkweed, dogbane and several other pasture plants. He certainly wasn’t the only cattle farmer who felt that way, and many farmers tried to avoid chemical control in fear of making their animals sick. However, thick underground stems make mechanical control ineffective.

Many folks now take a different view of this aggressive plant. Joe-Pye weed is becoming a popular ornamental wildflower for several reasons. It’s easy to grow. It has beautiful pink to purple flower clusters from mid-summer until early fall.

The nectar from these fragrant blooms helps feed many species of butterflies, notably monarchs and swallowtails. Bees like it too and so do hummingbirds. Seed heads persist well into winter and become food for many species of birds, particularly chickadees and finches. Joe-Pye weed is common throughout much of the country and Canada.

These conspicuous perennials can get large, often attaining heights of seven feet or more. They grow in full sun to partial shade and tolerate a wide variety of soil conditions, especially wet places. Long pointed toothed leaves emerge from the thick stems in groups of three or four.

Many ornamental cultivars are being developed. Most are much shorter and more compact than the wild types. Still, they are very winter hardy and adaptable. They make a great privacy screen because of their height and density.

Another selling point is that they are a native species. Actually, there are numerous related species of Joe-Pye weed scattered throughout our range. Some require a skilled botanist to differentiate them.

These plants also have few disease and insect problems. Deer and rabbits don’t often bother them either. The flowers also can be used in flower arrangements both fresh and dried.

Joe-Pye weed has been used medicinally to treat a myriad of maladies. Its diuretic properties make it useful for kidney stones and bladder infections. It also can help treat inflammation. Other claims are treatments for headache, fever, sore throat, digestive problems, asthma and impotence.

On the downside, Joe-Pye weed contains alkaloids that can be very harmful. They can block blood flow and cause liver damage. Joe-Pye weed use has even been linked to cancer. Those taking lithium should also avoid supplements containing Joe-Pye weed, also called gravel root.

I’ve seen commercial supplements containing this plant in stores and on the internet. They’re usually sold under the name of gravel root. However, due to potential side-effects, I’ve never had any urge to try them.

close-up of Joe-Pye weed flowers



Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School.

About tedmanzer

I grew up in Old Town Maine and got a B.S. at the University of Maine in Plant Sciences/ minor in Botany. From there I moved to West Virginia and earned a M.S. in Agronomy at WVU. I also met my wife there. She grew up in rural WV as the daughter of tenant farmers who raised cattle and hogs. Their lifestyle at times was one of subsistence and I learned a lot from them. I've always been a foraging buff, but combining my formal botanical knowledge with their practical 'Foxfire-type' background opened up my eyes a little more. I recently retired from teaching high school agriculture after 25 years teaching with my wife. Until recently I wrote a weekly nature/foraging column for the local paper ( I also have written several Christian nature/adventure novels that can be purchased on Amazon in Kindle format. One is a five book family saga I call the 'Forgotten Virtues' series. In the first book, Never Alone (presently out of print), a young boy comes of age after his father dies in a plane crash, and he has to make it alone. The second book, Strange Courage, takes Carl from his High School graduation to his recovery from a nasty divorce. The third book, Second Chances, takes Carl from his ex-wife's death and the custody of his son to his heroic death at age 59. The fourth book, Promises Kept, depicts how his grandchildren react and adjust to his death (this one is not yet published). In the final book, Grandfather's Way, his youngest and most timid granddaughter emerges from the shadow of her overachieving family and accomplishes more in four months than most do in a lifetime. I use many foraging references with a lot of the plants I profile in these articles in those books. I also wrote a romance novel titled Virginia. It is available on Amazon and is a different type of romance from a man's perspective.
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7 Responses to Joe-Pye weed is a pasture nightmare but a hot perennial ornamental

  1. tonytomeo says:

    That is how I feel about the ‘sterile’ garden varieties of pampas grass. It is still pampas grass. (Besides, it is only sterile because it lacks pollen; but can hybridize with the invasive sorts.) At least pampas grass is not native.

    • tedmanzer says:

      It’s a pain around here too. A few winters ago we got some really cold weather and froze much of our pampas grass out in some places. The only problem was that I also lost my 40 foot eucalyptus tree.

      • tonytomeo says:

        ?!What?! I didn’t know you had a eucalyptus tree! What species was it? Is it dead, or did it regenerate from the roots?

      • tedmanzer says:

        It was a silver dollar gum (Eucalyptus polyanthemos) and 3 consecutive nights below 5 F definitely killed it. I still saved about 8 feet of stump to hang plants from.

      • tonytomeo says:

        Wow, that is one of the more resilient species! It is also one of the more practical sorts for home gardens. We planted several as street trees in Los Angeles.

      • tedmanzer says:

        I loved it, but we were pushing our luck in zone 8. That hard winter just got us. Since it was that big there was nothing we could do.

      • tonytomeo says:

        Yes, I would have been hesitant to try one there. I see how come Eucalyptus are grown as annuals in colder climates, and it just seems weird.

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