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On Gardening: Don't be fooled; Joe Pye weed is a keeper

August 25, 2014
 
Swallowtail butterflies relish the Joe Pye weed. Here, an Eastern Tiger Swallowtail feasts on a variety called Little Red.

A reporter once asked me, "If you could convince all garden centers to sell one perennial, what would it be?" The answer at that time was simple for me: the Joe Pye weed. I’ve since fallen for a few other native weeds too, especially when I see the way they bring in bees and butterflies.

Since that question was asked a little over a decade ago, I have found more of them for sale. One garden center I visited a year ago even had three varieties. This time of year when a lot of plants are starting to look a little rough, the Joe Pye weed is showing off. Not only does it draw the attention of passers-by, but also it attracts butterflies and bees to the joy of plant nerds like me.

I imagine out there is a reader who wonders why I am promoting a weed. Don’t let the name throw you. This relative of the chrysanthemum is loved worldwide and has made it into gardens everywhere. Here, unfortunately, many people just admire it on the roadsides where it is native.

Legend has it that Joe Pye was a Native American who used the plant to cure fever. While Joe Pye weed’s medicinal properties are not known, its placement as a landscape perennial is a sure thing.

The Joe Pye is now known botanically as Eutrochium, and we find at least four species all rightfully claiming the name. Eutrochium fistulosum, or hollow stem Joe Pye weed, is often seen at the edge of woodland roadsides producing rose-pink flowers on stalks that may reach 6 to 8 feet tall. These and most Joe Pye weeds are recommended toward the back of the border.

At the Coastal Georgia Botanical Gardens, where I am director, we are growing Little Red, a variety of Eutrochium purpureum. It has been bringing in swallowtails of all sorts, and the hairstreak butterflies including the Great Purple hairstreak. Little Red is a more compact selection at 4 to 5 feet with large rose purple heads of flowers.

Another favorite at garden centers is Gateway, a variety of Eutrochium maculatum that reaches only 4 feet tall. Bailey’s Nursery in Minneapolis-St. Paul introduced this variety and it has turned out to be a winner across the country. I’ve grown it in the landscape and in large mixed containers on our deck and absolutely love it.

Another choice landscape plant is the Coastal Plain Joe Pye weed, Eutrochium dubium, native from South Carolina to Maine. Little Joe is a selection of this species that has received rave reviews across the country. It too is dwarf, reaching 3 to 4 feet tall.

Regardless of the one you choose, remember that the Joe Pye does best in fertile, loamy soil. To look their best they will need supplemental water during the summer, especially since now is their peak season. Plant them at least 3 feet apart.

Once they get started, you may feel like you can gather the neighbors to come over and watch them grow. With this rapid growth, you may find it to your liking to pinch a couple of times to encourage branching.

Use the Joe Pye with ornamental grasses, swamp hibiscus and a large drift or sweep of rudbeckias. Add Blue Fortune or Black Adder agastache and you’ll have a butterfly haven. You build it and they will come.

 

 


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