Joe Pye is back. Not the Native American herbalist for whom the wildflower is named, but the gorgeous wildflower itself that towers above a sea of goldenrod in our First Field.
Once we had dozens of joe-pye-weeds lifting their clusters of tiny, purple-colored blossoms above the lesser field flowers in August. Then they disappeared. We suspected deer were the culprits, and since our hunters have reduced deer numbers, joe-pye-weeds have returned.
Joe-pye-weed is named for a Native American herb doctor who is said to have wandered around rural New England in the late 1700s and offered “his” wildflower — known as “augue weed” — as a treatment for typhoid fever. Another Native American tribe considered it an aphrodisiac. The Chippewas made solutions of it for inflamed joints, and the Potawatomi used its toothed, ovate-shaped leaves as poultices for burns. In the nineteenth century, Americans treated urinary and kidney infections with it, hence its alternate names, “kidney-root” and “gravel-root.”
There are four species of joe-pye-weeds in Pennsylvania. The tallest is hollow joe-pye-weed (Eupatorium fistulosum), which can grow as high as twelve feet. Also known as “trumpet-weed,” its hollow, purple stem is covered with a whitish bloom, and its blossoms are pinkish-purple. It grows commonly in meadows, moist thickets, along roadsides and in floodplains.
Sweet joe-pye-weed (Eupatorium purpureum) has a solid green stem that is purple only where the leaves meet the stem, and its flowers can be pale pink or purplish. When bruised, the plant smells like vanilla. It likes drier, more shaded habitats such as open woods and fields. Both it and spotted joe-pye-weed (Eupatorium maculatum) grow up to eight feet tall. The stem of the latter is purple and spotted, its clusters of flowers flat-topped and purplish, and it favors wet areas—swamps, wet thickets and floodplains.
Eastern joe-pye-weed is much shorter, its stem finely purple-spotted, and its flowers purple. This is the rarest of the species in Pennsylvania, preferring sandy, acidic soil in swamps, bogs, marshes and swales. All four species have leaves in whorls of three to seven on their stems.
The flowers of joe-pye-weed hum with bees and are butterfly-attractants. Although the insects aid in pollinating the flowers, the plant is also self-pollinating because of its closely-packed flowers, some male and some female, the pollen-bearing stamens touching the pollen-catching stigmas.
Another August-blooming Eupatorium that my husband Bruce and I found growing in a sea of Queen Anne’s lace in First Field during our evening walk was a single stalk of Eupatorium perfoliatum or boneset. It too has clusters of flowers growing atop a tall stem, but its flowers are white and its stem hairy. Its most distinctive feature is its opposite, lance-shaped leaves that clasp and surround the stem.
Boneset is another native herbal and its name may have originated from its use in treating dengue or break-bone fever that once ravaged the southern United States. The fever is so painful that sufferers feel as if their bones are broken. Sipping boneset tea, made from the dried leaves, was said to relieve the pain. Another theory was that because boneset leaves were joined together, a poultice of the plant would help to knit broken bones. Or, most likely, boneset tea was a pain-reliever for those with broken bones.
Boneset tea seemed to be a cure-all and was sipped to treat rheumatism, pneumonia, constipation, influenza, ringworm, and expelling tapeworms. It was even purported to cure snakebite. At least one account, by A.D. Magner in The New System 1883, seemed to justify that belief. A young woman who lived in Mahomeny Creek, Jefferson County, Pennsylvania was bitten by a rattlesnake one morning, Magner wrote. After the fruitless ride of her father to a doctor, who could do nothing, 20 miles away in Red Bank, the discouraged father was returning home when he was met by a neighbor who offered to help. The neighbor ran across his field gathering boneset, chewing some of the leaves as a poultice to put on the bite, and he planned to use the rest boiled down in milk as a drink for the afflicted woman. By the time they reached her, it was night, her tongue was swollen and hanging out of her mouth, and she was bleeding from her moth and ears. But the neighbor kept changing the poultices and giving her spoonfuls of the tea throughout the night, and by morning, she could close her mouth and had stopped bleeding. The following evening she was “entirely restored,” Magner claimed.
Probably the oddest use of boneset was by the Chippewas who rubbed boneset root fibers on special whistles they made as charms for calling deer.
Not all the Eupatoriums are as useful. The most notorious one is white snakeroot (E. rugosum). Even the deer don’t touch it, which is why it thrives in the edges of our fields and woods in late August and early September. Cows are not as discriminating as deer and before humans realized it poisonous properties, their cows ate it. This tainted the milk with a poison that killed thousands of eastern North American pioneers, including Abraham Lincoln’s mother Nancy. It took decades before people figured out the culprit.
Native Americans, on the other hand, made a tea from its roots to help cure diarrhea, painful urination, fevers and kidney stones. They also burned it and used the smoke to revive unconscious patients.
White snakeroot, also called “richweed,” has stalked, toothed, sharply-pointed, opposite leaves below three flower stalks, each of which supports clusters of fringy, white flowers that resemble the cultivated ageratum. It blooms from August until early October.
Still another interesting native August wildflower that is making a comeback is turtlehead. Once it flowered abundantly in our woods beside our stream, but it too is a favorite of deer and gradually turtlehead disappeared. Then, a couple years ago, our son Steve discovered a large planting of it, hidden by the field grasses, at the base of a wet seep above our driveway. I was elated, especially when Baltimore checkerspot butterflies fluttered above the patch.
These gorgeous black, orange and white butterflies lay their reddish eggs in clusters as high as 700 on turtlehead, or, less commonly, on English plantain and yellow foxglove. The eggs hatch in two weeks and the larvae construct a silken nest and feed on turtlehead leaves inside the nest. Although the larvae stop feeding in August, they over winter in their tent. The following spring the bristly, black and orange caterpillars leave the tent and wander off to feed not only on turtlehead leaves but also on those of English plantain, honeysuckle, lousewort, and viburnum.
Looked at head on, the white or pinkish flowers of turtlehead resemble the head of a turtle, and its generic name Chelone is Greek for “tortoise.” Its species name glabra means “smooth” and refers to its smooth stems and leaves. Other names for turtlehead are “turtlebloom,” “snakehead,” “codhead,” “fishmouth,” “bitterherb,” “salt-rheum,” and “balmony.” It too was a popular herbal, and Native Americans used it as a tonic, laxative, and as a treatment for worms, jaundice, and tuberculosis. One tribe, the Malecite Indians of the Canadian Maritime Provinces, employed it as a contraceptive. Herbalist Charles Harris declared it good for “the removal of toxic sludge from the stomach and intestines.” I prefer its use as a Baltimore checkerspot food plant.
Orange jewelweed (Impatiens capensis) or touch-me-not grows along our mile-and-a-half long stream. But it is a favorite deer food and is severely pruned by them as summer progresses. But inside our three-acre deer exclosure in the bottom, wet area, it reached its full height and abundance last August. Ruby-throated hummingbirds buzzed from blossom to blossom, their long bills pollinating the flowers by picking up their grains of white pollen from one flower and depositing them in another, all the while they were obtaining choice nectar.
Bumblebees, too, like jewelweed nectar, but they and other bees and wasps can’t reach it all inside the pendant-like blossom and often bite off the back of the flower to reach the nectar, which I’ve watched them do. However, jewelweed doesn’t need to be pollinated by any creature because it has cleistogamous flowers (flowers than never open) that produce seeds, not enough, however, to cover the plant in flowers as the English discovered when they planted it in their gardens, where there are no hummingbirds, and called it “orange balsam” and “swing-boats,” the latter referring to its dangling flowers that also gave it the name “lady’s eardrops” and “jewelweed.” “Snapweed” is a description of how the plant throws its seeds when you touch them, hence, “touch-me-not.”
Native Americans used it as a skin salve for eczema, athlete’s foot, and especially, poison ivy rash. Our son, Dave, who is highly susceptible to poison ivy, has often rubbed the fresh leaves of jewelweed on affected areas, but apparently a better solution is to stuff any part of the plant and as much as possible into a pot of water and boil it for half an hour or more until the water turns deep orange. Bottle and refrigerate it or freeze it for longer term use and spread it on the rash. This herbal remedy works.
Not all the native wildflowers of August have herbal properties. Some of my latest discoveries are merely interesting and occasionally striking such as spikenard (Aralia racemosa), which I found growing on our road bank. A member of the Ginseng family, round umbels of greenish-white flowers grow on a smooth, black stem and later clusters of dark purple fruit catch my attention when walking up our road.
On that same road bank, panicled hawkweed (Hieracium paniculatum) supports a yellow, dandelion-like blossom or two on horizontal stems. Unlike the nonnative orange and yellow hawkweeds that grow in fields, panicled hawkweed is a woodland wildflower.
So too is smooth false foxglove (Gerardia laevigata), which is said to be parasitic on the roots of oak trees. Its bell-shaped, golden flowers blossom on our Laurel Ridge Trail but are often nipped off by deer. Still, a few manage to bloom every August.
Wood nettles (Laportea canadensis) have made a terrific comeback since our deer numbers have decreased. From none to hundreds, maybe thousands of plants, which have spread from stream bank to road bank, they have bristly stems with stinging hairs as I discovered when I first examined the unknown (to me) plant several years ago. Their branched, greenish flowers and alternate, egg-shaped leaves are their identifying characteristics.
All of these native August wildflowers, in some way, reflect the white-tailed deer that roam our square mile. White snakeroot thrives because deer don’t eat it. All of the others have increased, made a comeback, or debuted because we tried and succeeded in reducing our deer herd by using skilled and dedicated hunters who take between 38 and 45 deer off our square mile of property every year.
All photos by Dave Bonta. Click on them to see larger versions.