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Joe Pye weed was one of those plants that I saw so often when I was growing up, it didn't have much meaning for me. It was taller than I was, and I knew butterflies liked it. I didn't pick it for its blooms because it was always covered with honeybees. I didn't even know its name. To tell you the truth, for many years I thought Joe Pye was the name of a child, not a plant.
There was a post office in the tiny town, but I lived about a mile away and didn't get there often. It was in the 50's, and it wasn't uncommon for me to walk to the post office with my Great Aunt Bett or Granny Ninna, but only on an infrequent Saturday morning. The post office was a long narrow building, a small store on the right side and the post office on the left with a wide hall down the center. The old couple who owned the building also were postmistress and store keeper. There were wooden steps leading up to a porch that covered the front of the post office, and there were handmade wooden ladder back chairs across the porch. Occasionally on a sunny morning old men sat in those chairs, chewing and spitting brown tobacco juice out of the sides of their mouths onto the dusty road. Aunt Bett would say: "Earl, what're you boys doin' on this here warm day?" And old Earl who was as close to 80 as I was to 8, looked back at her and answered: "Well, Betty Ann, I reckon I'se watchin' Joe Pye grow." Well, what was I supposed to think? Sure sounded like Joe Pye was a kid to me, since to my knowledge, kids named Joe usually grew.
Then one day Aunt Bett said, "Chile, it's time for us to go gather up some Joe Pye. We'll have to go upside the hill a ways 'cause I want it to be clean when we git it." Being more curious than I was intimidated by this time, I asked her where Joe Pye was and why he was dirty. I swear, you would have thought I had asked her what made the sky blue. She turned those blue eyes on me and I didn't know if it was a smile or a frown, but she said, "What're you talkin' about? Joe Pye is that weed that grows longside the road, but it's covered in coal dust and I need me some clean if I'm gonna use it."
That was my introduction to Joe Pye weed (Eupatorium purpureum). It was a staple in the medicine cabinets of a lot of old folks in the mountains of southeast Kentucky, if they had medicine cabinets. Aunt Bett used it for its medicinal value, but we'll get to that in just a minute. Joe Pye weed is a tall plant, a relative of the chrysanthemum, and it grows wild in the fertile loamy soil that is found in the mountains. Its blooms are a deep rose pink and it often grows to about 8 feet in height. It is a very fast growing plant, covering what seems to be inches in a day, so it was a common saying among the older generation to "watch Joe Pye grow" when they were sitting around doing not much of anything. My mother, being a teacher, was not very fond of some of the local phrases, so I was not really familiar with "watching Joe Pye grow". Being a tall plant, it makes a beautiful background for low growing plants, and I enjoy seeing it in gardens today, much more than I appreciated it then.
According to legend, Joe Pye was a Native American who used the plant to cure a fever. It also was said that Native Americans used it in cleansing rituals to induce sweating. In the mountains of southeast Kentucky during the 50's, a decoction made from Joe Pye weed was as necessary as a stack of kindling beside the cookstove. A decoction, of course, is made by placing all parts of the mature plant in cold water and boiling it for at least 30 minutes then letting it sit till it cools, add a little water and boil it again. After several boilings and coolings, it was strained and the liquid was saved and bottled. A spoonful of the liquid was added to a baby's bottle of sugar water to break a fever. It could be rubbed on aching arthritic joints to relieve pain. And I know for a fact that some young men thought it was a love potion, and tried to slip a drop or two of it into their sweetheart's glass of iced tea from time to time. Some folks used it as a tonic to strengthen children, some used it for kidney problems, and Aunt Bett kept it on hand for whatever ailed her. She kept the dried leaves and flowers as well as the root for an occasional infusion, which means that boiling hot water was poured over the dried plant pieces and allowed to steep, then strained before drinking. I can't tell you if it worked, because it was one of the few that I was not interested in. That could be because I could not make a dye of it. At any rate it was not one of the potions that was forced upon me.
Truth is, all that boiling and drying and sipping was for naught because today's scientists say there is absolutely no medicinal value to be found in Joe Pye weed. I am just glad that Aunt Bett never knew, because she used it a lot and it seemed to work for her. Of course if Aunt Bett were still around she might just convince the scientists that they were wrong.
Photos are from Plant Files. Thanks to Dwarfconifer and Marilynbeth, the photographers.
All information comes from my family's writings and from those of Aunt Bett.
About Sharon Brown
I am a retired high school art and humanities teacher. I grew up in the Appalachian mountains of southeast KY and now I live with my two rescued cats, Jazz and Daisy, in far western KY. I am an artist often doing commissioned work, and in addition to writing articles for Dave's Garden, I also write boating stories for a nautical magazine as well as other venues. My greatest loves are writing, painting, my 5 year old grandson, then learning the history of our numerous wildflowers in Kentucky. And, of course, there's gardening.