If butterflies are about this week, you can be sure you will find them on the heads of sweet Joe-Pye-weed (Eupatorium purpureum). This perennial herb, found in moist woods and fields throughout Appalachia, is at its height of bloom right now through September. Atop each stem is a rose pink to whitish domed cluster of flowers, about 1 foot in diameter. Gardeners delight in this towering, showy plant, as another common name for it, ‘Queen of the Meadow’, clearly suggests.
However, the plant’s name is the first clue that we’re dealing with far more than just another pretty flower. It’s named after a New England American Indian named Joe Pye, who was said to have cured typhus with it. Tea made from the dried root and flowers can still be used to induce sweating and break a high fever.
The entire plant, in fact, is used in native medicine, with the roots being the strongest part. Crushed leaves have an apple scent and can be dried, then burned to repel flies. Joe Pye was used by the Iroquois and Cherokees as a diuretic, who infused dried root and flowers for a tea to relieve kidney and urinary problems. They also used this tea for rheumatism, gravel (gallstones), and dropsy (fluid retention).
The Cherokee used the stems of Joe-Pye Weeds to suck water from shallow springs, which was convenient since they are often found in wet areas. They also referred to it as Blow Gun Weed, and used it in the way suggested by the name to administer throat medicine.
The Ojibwa used Joe Pye to strengthen a child. They would wash the child with a strong solution for first 6 years of its life. The Chippewa used a decoction of the root as a warm wash for inflammation of the joints, or in a child’s bath to induce sleep.
Huron H. Smith, an ethnobotanist who worked with several North American tribes during the nineteen-twenties and thirties, was told that the Meskwaki used the root as a sort of “love medicine,” nibbling it when speaking to an intended.
“Fresh leaves of Joe-Pye weed are used by the Potawatomi to make poultices for healing burns. Mrs. Spoon used the root under the name “maskwano’kûk” [red top] as a medicine to clear up after-birth. Among the whites, the root and the herb have both been used for medicines. The root is said to have diuretic, stimulant, astringent and tonic properties, while the plant itself is diuretic and tonic.
“The Herbalist says that the root has diuretic, astringent and tonic properties and has been used by eclectic practitioners in the treatment of chronic urinary disorders, hematuria, gout and rheumatism. The Forest Potawatomi use the flowering tops of the Joe Pye Weed as a good luck talisman. When one is going to gamble he places the tops in his pocket and then is sure to win a lot of money.”
“Ethnobotany of the Forest Potawatomi” by HH Smith