Joe Pye Weed: It’s for the birds (and bees, and butterflies)

By Jean English | Jan 21, 2012
Joe Pye weed in a flower border at Thuya Gardens in Northeast Harbor.

Looking to make a splash in the flower border or perennial garden? Consider planting a mass of the native perennial Joe Pye weed (Eupatorium purpureum).

Come summer, once the plants are established, great domes of pinkish-purple, vanilla-scented flower heads will seem to float like clouds – usually more than six feet high – in the garden. Up close, you’ll have to look up to see the plant’s fragrant flowers, and the clouds of insects, including bees, monarch and swallowtail butterflies, and more, that thrive on the nectar and pollen.

Just be sure to place this plant where it won’t overwhelm smaller species. Set it in the back of a border garden or in a good-sized meadow or wildflower garden. Allow two to four feet for each plant to spread.

Joe Pye weed is interesting, too, for the vanilla scent its foliage emits when crushed, and it makes a good cut flower.

Native Americans used the plant medicinally to treat numerous health problems, including those related to the bladder, kidneys and uterus. Its other common name, gravel root, refers to its use to treat kidney stones. (Some sources say that the name “Joe Pye” comes from a Native American healer, but James Duke, in his Handbook of Medicinal Herbs, says, “It’s name is derived from ‘Joe Pye,’ a nineteenth-century Caucasian “Indian theme promoter” who used the root to induce sweating in typhus fever.)

Hardy to Zone 4, Joe Pye weed grows best in full sun to partial shade and in moist, well-drained soils with a good amount of organic matter. Consider it for bee, butterfly and bird-friendly gardens, for rain gardens, and for deer-resistant landscapes.

Seeds of this plant, available from Fedco Seeds, should be stratified – i.e., exposed to three months of cold, moist storage – to germinate. You can provide this by sowing seeds in the fall directly in the ground or in pots kept in a coldframe or unheated space, keeping the potting medium moist; or sowing seeds in a pot this winter or early spring and keeping the pot in a cold area.

Whether you start seeds in fall or spring, sow them thickly, since germination tends to be low. Transplant young plants to their permanent spot in the garden. They should bloom in their second year.

Joe Pye weed can also be propagated by taking softwood cuttings in late spring or by dividing plants in the fall when they go dormant or in spring when shoots break the soil. In fact, dividing plants every few years can help keep them growing within the bounds of a garden.

Once established, these plants are fairly low maintenance. Cut the stems back to the ground in late fall to maintain a neat appearance – or, perhaps better, leave them over winter to provide habitat for insects and seed-eating birds, including finches, then cut them back in spring. The seed heads can add interest to the winter landscape.

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