Common Name: Joe-Pye Weed, Queen of the meadow, Gravelroot, Kidneywort, Purple boneset, Purple thoroughwort. Mist flower – Joe Pye is alleged to have been a Native American healer who used the plant to treat typhoid fever.
Scientific Name: Eupatorium spp. – Mithridates Eupator was the king of Pontus in Asia Minor from 120 to 63 BCE. His surname Eupator was derived from the Greek eupatrides which meant having a noble father and was applied to the hereditary aristocrats of Athens. After his succession to the throne at the age of eleven, he went into exile in the mountains due to numerous attempts on his life by his mother. Because of this, he is said to have adopted the practice of consuming small amounts of poisonous substances over time to build up immunity. One of the plants he is thought to have thus employed was from the genus Eupatorium that bears his name. He fought three wars against the Romans (called the Mithridatic Wars) until conquered by Pompey the Great. Ironically, he tried to poison himself to escape dishonor; however his immunity necessitated ordering a subordinate to perform the act with a sword.
Potpourri: The etiology of the name Joe Pye for several Eupatorium species is subject to some conjecture. The most common assertion is that Joe Pye was an Indian herb doctor who used the plant to cure an outbreak of disease in the Massachusetts Bay colony; the disease is usually identified as typhoid but typhus is also a possibility. Given the usually tenuous relationship between the Indians and the colonists, it seems unlikely that an Indian would have been altogether trusted as a dispenser of medicine. A subordinate version identifies him as an itinerant Caucasian “Indian theme promoter” from Maine. A more plausible explanation is that the name entered the lexicon as a calque of the Indian word jopi, which meant typhoid; the jopiweed was in widespread use by Native Americans as a medicinal to treat a variety of ailments. When the colonists learned of its use from the Indians as jopiweed, it became Joe-Pye Weed.
Joe-Pye weed was employed by Native Americans in applications ranging from practical to superstitious. It was used by many tribes in the form of a tea made from the leaves that was a diaphoretic (sweat-producing) medicine. It was in this form that it was likely used by “Joe Pye” in the abatement of typhoid fever. Cherokee healers supposedly used a section of the hollow stem to spray the medicine over the sufferer. The flowers were used to treat postpartum pain in women and as a treatment for venereal disease. In some Indian cultures, a child washed in a solution made from jopiweed roots was thought to be strengthened; a child who was fretful and would not sleep was put in a bath to which the root solution was added as a soporific. It was a custom of the Fox Indians that a young brave could enhance his chances of success with the woman of his choice if he approached her after having nibbled on the plant. The Potawatomi Indians made a burn poultice from the leaves, considering the flower head to be a good luck talisman. It was also reportedly used to soothe the nerves, to improve the appetite and to enhance the complexion, a veritable panacea.
The medicinal uses of the Eupatorium plants were selectively adapted by the early colonists from the Indians. In addition to the treatment for fevers according to the sweat-inducing properties of the plant for which “Indian Joe Pye” receives accolades in his anonymity, the plant was also used in the treatment of diseases associated with the kidneys and the urinary tract. The name Gravelroot attests to its use in the dissolution of kidney stones; Kidneywort refers to a wider use in the treatment of urinary tract infections and kidney diseases. Purple boneset refers to its similarities to a species of Eupatorium with white flowers commonly called boneset for its use in the treatment of dengue, or breakbone, fever; Joe-Pye Weed has pink to purple flowers so it became purple boneset. Research on plants of the genus in Germany has indicated the presence of polysaccharides that are active in promoting immunities, which may validate some of the medicinal claims. The strong constituents of the plant may also explain the practice of burning dried leaves to repel insects.
There are several species of Joe-Pye weed that have distinguishing features that are mnemonically captured in their Latin names. Spotted Joe-Pye Weed, E. maculatum has dark purple spots on the stem (macula is Latin for spot), Hollow Joe-Pye Weed, E. fistulosum has a hollow stem (fistula is Latin for tube), and Sweet Joe-Pye Weed, E. purpureum is purple at the leaf nodes (purpureus is Latin for purple). Not all of the plants of the Eupatorium genus are benign. White snakeroot (E. rugosum) is poisonous in all its parts, its consumption by cows causing the dreaded milk disease that killed Abraham Lincoln’s mother.