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What is Eupatorium?

N. Phipps
N. Phipps

Eupatorium species consist of both white and purple-flowering plants. These tall perennial herbs are commonly found throughout the Central and Eastern United States. While most varieties grow naturally in moist fields, woodland edges, or along streams and ponds, some of these plants can be grown in the garden as focal points or for ornamental purposes. In fact, their attractive blooms make interesting additions to mixed borders or natural gardens.

When growing Eupatorium as ornamental plants, you should set them up with full sun to partial shade. They also need moist soil that has been enriched with organic matter. The plants in this genus are easily propagated in the spring. This is generally accomplished by seed or through division of their root clumps.

Man mowing the grass
Man mowing the grass

While there are a number of different Eupatorium species within this group, the most popular include E. maculatum and E. perfoliatum. The first one is a purple-flowering species more commonly known as Joe Pye weed. The clustered flowerheads of this species vary in color from pinkish-purple to purplish mauve. These blooms are lightly scented and the foliage even emits a vanilla aroma when crushed.

The other species is known by various names that include boneset and thoroughwort. This white-flowering Eupatorium also has lightly scented blooms. The foliage is rather interesting, having perfoliate leaves. This simply refers to the way in which the stem seems to pierce through the leaf. The name thoroughwort — a derivative of through — may have originated from this odd growth characteristic.

Butterflies find all these plant species attractive. However, it’s their medicinal history which has made the Eupatorium group most notable. Native Americans have long since used these plants medicinally to treat numerous ailments. For instance, various types, such as Joe Pye, were used to treat fevers, especially typhus. In fact, that is how this particular species got its name. Joe Pye was thought to be the first one to use the plant for this purpose.

In addition to treating fevers, the tea made from Eupatorium leaves was used as a remedy for anything from influenza and diarrhea to kidney ailments, intestinal worms, and rheumatism. The boneset species was also used to treat broken bones. While all herbal remedies should be taken and used with caution, this is especially true of these plants, as they are considered toxic. In fact, side effects from the use of these plants include muscle tremors and weakness, and in severe cases or overdose, death may result.

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