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.
Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School.