Joe-Pye weed has an identity crisis on a couple of fronts. First, its classification has recently changed from Eupatorium to Eutrochium. All the purple-flowered members of the old genus have been place in the new one. The purple-flowered species also have mostly whorled leaves, while those of Eupatorium are generally opposite.
I have written about Joe-Pye weed before as an enthusiastic volunteer in our meadow garden. It, along with boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum), were colonizers of the wetter portions of the side yard that we let go unmown until the first week of November each year. Now that I live in a different part of the village I see Joe-Pye and boneset growing together in the ditches everywhere.
Both have loose clusters of flowers—sort of a sloppy corymb–at the top of the plants and in some species sprouting from the stem joints. The plants tend to be about three feet tall, but they can be much taller. This year, perhaps because of the drought, the Joe-Pye weed seems to be done with flowering early; the blossoms are faded and ragged at the end of August. They are usually beautiful right into October.
The second identity crisis is the question of Joe Pye himself. Sometimes common names can have only tenuous connections to real people: what does Queen Anne have to do with Queen Anne’s lace? There has also been the suggestion that “Joe Pye” is a corruption of a native American word jopi or jopai for typhus, which a decoction of Eutrochium is said to have cured.
In the case of Joe Pye there is an oft-repeated story that doesn’t seem to have any substance at all. In many places (that is, blogs and plant information sites), you will read of Joe Pye as a native American healer from Salem, Massachusetts, who saved colonists from an outbreak of typhus. It was said to induce sweating. This is interesting in that one of the symptoms of typhus is fever.
An excellent blog post by Richard Pearce at Praireworksinc.com, a site owned by a land stewardship and ecological restoration company, uncovered the likely true story of Joe Pye. Pearce identifies him as Shauquethqueat, a member of the Stockbridge “tribe” of western Massachusetts. Most of the surviving Algonquian people of New England took “Christian” names, at least in part because their own were so badly corrupted by the colonists. There were a lot of Pyes in the Stockbridge area, according to census records from the early 20th century. Shauquethqueat lived in the late 18th century and was a sachem for his people, which meant he probably did have knowledge of herbal medicine.
Pearce tracks down Shauquethqueat by following the earliest references to “Joe-pye weed” as a common name for various Eupatorium species. The first mention is in Amos Eaton’s Manual of Botany from 1818. In a revised edition of 1822 he adds a footnote that leads Pearce out into western Massachusetts; the president of Williams College reports curing himself of “an alarming fever” that Eaton implies was typhus-caused using a tea made from Joe-Pye weed.
Rationalist that he is, Pearce makes a tea from Eutrochium flowers that he buys in a story and finds that it does not induce a fever (but tastes delicious). He allows that his store-bought herbs may not be as efficacious as fresh ones, but does wonder whether Joe-Pye weed would really be effective against typhus. He cites a mortality rate of 10 to 20 percent for typhus. Typhus and typhoid fever are two different diseases, and he seems to be citing the dangers associated with the latter, which is said to kill 25 percent of victims without treatment. Typhus can kill up to 60 percent of its victims without treatment.
At any rate, Pearce makes a convincing case for the identity of Joe Pye, although its effectiveness as an herbal remedy is left in question.