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My Love Affair With Joe (Pye Weed)

The search for a tall summer-blooming perennial launches a garden love affair.

It all started innocently enough. It was about this time, just a few short years ago. I was sitting on my raised terrace, looking out into my garden, when I thought how nice it would be to have some tall flowers peaking just above the terrace walls so I could admire the blossoms closer to eye level.

Basically, I needed a deer-resistant perennial that would be about 4’ tall and bloom in mid to late summer. Being native and attracting pollinators would be an added bonus. After a bit of research, I decided to plant a cultivar of Joe Pye Weed (Eupatorium dubium) called ‘Little Joe’. Cue the violins because the love affair was about to begin.

Getting to Know Joe

Despite it’s less than appealing common name, Joe Pye Weed is a fantastic plant for any Connecticut garden. According to legend, this wildflower is named after a traveling Native American medicine man, Joe Pye (or Jopi), who sold an herbal tonic to fight typhoid fever made from Eupatorium to the colonists. While there is no evidence the tonic actually worked, the colorful common name has persisted.

In my garden, Little Joe is like Grand Central Station for butterflies and bees. When it’s in bloom, starting in late July and lasting through mid-September, there is rarely a time when a butterfly is not sipping its nectar. Even when it’s not flowering, Little Joe’s coarse, whorled foliage adds life to my garden by attracting a host of caterpillars and insects.

According to the experts, Joe prefers a sunny spot with consistently moist soil, but in my garden he is thriving in a site with fairly dry soil. I give Little Joe a drink during the inevitable late summer drought when I see his leaves start to curl but that’s a small price to pay for all the butterflies Joe entices into my garden.

A Garden Giant and His Friends

Eupatorium can be a giant growing into clumps over 6’ tall. Not many gardeners have room for such a massive perennial. Luckily, there are some garden-friendly species of Eupatorium, including American boneset (E. perfoliatum), snakeroot (E. rugosum) and spotted Joe Pye Weed (E. maculatum) along with several dwarf cultivars that are much easier to accommodate in most gardens.

Once I realized how much I loved Little Joe, I decided to branch out and give some his cousins a try. Now my garden is also home to E.rugosum 'Chocolate' with its purple new foliage and fuzzy white blooms in early fall and E. maculatum ‘Gateway’ with its lavender pink flowers on red 5’ stems.

Joe is a pretty amenable guy, but he shines when combined with other late summer garden stars such as black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia), fountain grass (Pennisetum), goldenrod (Solidago), and tickseed (Coreopsis). If you’re planting a taller cultivar like ‘Gateway’ or ‘Little Joe’, use it as a focal point surrounded by lower growing perennials. One of the dwarf cultivars, like ‘Baby Joe’ or ‘Chocolate’, will be at home in the middle of any mixed border.

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