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Saturday, August 19, 2006

Joe-Pye Weed—Queen of the Meadow

Image: by D L Ennis, Joe-Pye Weed (Eupatorium purpureum)

As you drive the Blue Ridge Parkway or the back roads of the Blue Ridge, keep an eye out for this beautiful herbaceous perennial plant.

Sometimes called “Queen of the Meadow,” Joe-Pye Weed (Eupatorium purpureum) is a beautiful stately plant, which dances on breezes throughout the Blue Ridge Mountains. 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. It 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.

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.

Image: by D L Ennis, Joe-Pye Weed reflecting on Otter Lake on the Blue Ridge Parkway in Virginia

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.

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