I have wild and nursery-grown Joe Pye Weed blooming in the naturalized section of Northern Bliss gardens this month. Despite the recent drought in the Midwest, these plants are taller than ever. The only differences between the wild Joe Pye—which has grown in the same spot for years—is that the nursery variety has a more intense color that doesn’t fade as fast.

Joe Pye weed
One stem of Joe Pye Weed at Northern Bliss Gardens.

Joe Pye weeds (Eupatorium) are native essentials for any pollinator garden. These plants are attractive because of their hardiness as well as their popularity with butterflies, bees, and hummingbirds. There are several species; all have tall leafy stems with flat or rounded heads of small-but-bountiful, showy flowers. Because they can rise to 6-8 feet tall, I keep them confined to our lot border near the Rain Garden, and also behind a couple of tall boulders. Joe Pye is a tough perennial that loves moist conditions but can withstand high summer temperatures. The flowers bloom bright purple-pink in August when most perennials are fading.

Nursery-grown Joe Pye weed
Nursery-grown Joe Pye Weed (eupatorium purpureum).
Wild Joe Pye as backdrop to black-eyed susan
Wild Joe Pye forms a backdrop to Black-eyed Susan, Swamp Milkweed, and Cardinal Flower.

 

What’s in a name? When my friends and family tour Northern Bliss Gardens, they ask,” Why is this called Joe Pye? Who was he?” The story begins with an Eastern Algonquian Indian medicine man named Zhopai and is set in the area around Stockbridge, New York (east of Syracuse). His name was anglicized to Joe Pye. When a typhoid epidemic struck the area, Joe successfully treated Indians using two plants of the genus Eupatorium, “Joe Pye” and Boneset. Legend has it that a white man from a neighboring town had befriended the local Indians while repairing their plows and harnesses. He begged their medicine man, Zhopai, to cure his two young sons who were dying of the fever. “You can see that I’m an older man, I probably will have no more children,” he said. “Save their lives and I will give you everything I have—including my farm.” Because the white man had done a lot for his people in the past, Joe turned down the offer but agreed to help the man’s sons. He treated them with Boneset and “Joe Pye.” Miraculously, they lived!

Later, the Stockbridge Indians were forcibly removed to Wisconsin to make more room for European settlers. They were taken to Wisconsin in the dead of winter and deposited on land belonging to the Menominee people, who pitied them and even gave them part of their land. This band is still in Wisconsin, where it is called the Stockbridge Munsee.

Zhopai stayed behind with whites in New York State, but as his family left, he gave each of his grandchildren a bag filled with Joe Pye seeds. “Scatter them on your journey, whenever you pass a wet or swampy area,” he said. “When I’m well enough to follow you, I will know you passed this way.” The old man never made the trip; however, Joe Pye Weed, his legacy, is indeed scattered all the way from the eastern U.S. to Wisconsin. Source: Plants Have So Much to Give Us, All We Have to Do Is Ask, by Mary Siisip Geniusz.

A second legend: Another version of the Joe Pye legend was told to me by a nursery worker: In this story, the medicine man, Zhopai, used a brew made from this plant to cure the blacksmith’s two sons of typhoid. Because of this, the father’s lifelong dream was to spread Joe Pye from east to west. His sons heeded the call, “Go west, young man!” and prepared to take off to settle the new land. Their father was too ill and old to make the trip, but asked his two sons to spread the seeds along ponds and marshes as far west as they could go. They stopped in Wisconsin, and that’s why Joe Pye Weed is sold as a “native wildflower” here.

The facts as we know them: My curiosity drove me to dig deep into research, where I unearthed archives of The Great Lakes Botanist, Vol 56. The year Joe Pye Weed entered the English language was 1818, according to Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. It gives the origin of the name as “unknown.”  Popular literature on native plants associate Zhopai with the colonial days of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, specifically to English settlers from 1628-1691. Some records attribute spectacular success to Zhopai’s treatment of typhus using the plants that now bear his name, even to the extent of the saving an entire colony of early settlers. Other stories (with no sources cited) portray Zhopai as a traveling salesman with a horse and wagon! Another claimed that he traveled around the Northeast peddling medicines around the time of the American Revolution. Some insisted that he came from the Carolinas. As recently as 2011, Joe was considered to be a Caucasian “snake-oil salesman.” There are also discrepancies about whether Zhopai used the leaves and stems of the plants or the roots. 

Legendary expansion, as it is called, is a phenomenon quite familiar to folklorists and historians. The Botanist found no evidence to support the statements that Zhopai was Caucasian or that he was a peddler or showman of any kind. I prefer to believe the first legend and that’s the one I plan to tell. Meanwhile, I’m enjoying the exuberance of Joe Pye Weed blowing in the wind at Northern Bliss.

Rain Garden backed by Joe Pye Weed
Rain Garden backed by Joe Pye Weed.

Other stories about Northern Bliss:

How to Drain a Wet Lot https://sailorstales.wordpress.com/2014/09/29/how-to-drain-a-wet-lot/

I Never Promised You a Rain Garden https://sailorstales.wordpress.com/2015/08/26/i-never-promised-you-a-rain-garden/

Returning to Northern Bliss: Fifty Shades of Green https://sailorstales.wordpress.com/2016/06/15/returning-to-northern-bliss-fifty-shades-of-green/

A Winter-Wonderland Holiday in Northwest Wisconsin https://sailorstales.wordpress.com/2021/02/14/a-winter-wonderland-holiday-in-northwest-wisconsin/

Wise Old Oak https://sailorstales.wordpress.com/2020/11/13/wise-old-oak/

The Miracle of Autumn https://sailorstales.wordpress.com/2020/10/25/the-miracle-of-autumn/

April is the Cruelest Month https://sailorstales.wordpress.com/2020/04/25/april-is-the-cruelest-month/

Tornado: Disaster at Northern Bliss https://sailorstales.wordpress.com/2019/08/16/tornado-disaster-at-northern-bliss/

Recovery from Natural Disasters https://sailorstales.wordpress.com/2019/09/28/recovery-from-natural-disasters/

About the Author: Lois and Günter Hofmann lived their dream by having a 43-foot ocean-going catamaran built for them in the south of France and sailing around the world. Learn more about their travel adventures by reading Lois’s award-winning nautical adventure trilogy. Read more about Lois and her adventures at her website and stay in touch with Lois by liking her Facebook page. Lois’s books can be purchased from PIP Productions on Amazon.