Despite the fact that it has the word “weed” in its name, Joe Pye weed is a great native flower to add to your garden. It’s not the best for small spaces, since it normally grows 5-8 feet tall, but it will add beauty and fragrance along with its impressive height.
Joe Pye weed was also once favored by Native Americans and American herbalists to treat fevers and for use as a diuretic. Most gardeners now grow it as an ornamental plant, but you can look into its medicinal properties if you’re interested.
Here’s more about why you would want to grow Joe Pye weed, plus how to plant and care for this native wildflower.
What Is Joe Pye Weed?
Joe Pye weed is a perennial flower native to the eastern U.S. and Canada. Related species also grow in Europe and Asia. It’s thought that this plant is named after Joe Pye, a Native American herbalist who used it to help treat typhus.
Formerly known as Eupatorium, Joe Pye weed now goes by the genus name of Eutrochium. There are several different native species, but the most commonly mentioned is E. purpureum.
You can grow Joe Pye weed as a perennial in USDA hardiness zones 3-8. It’s found in the wild mainly in moist and partly shady areas like woodlands and damp meadows. You might also see it growing along the side of the road.
These plants will definitely make their presence known in your garden, growing up to 7 or 8 feet tall and blooming with large flower clusters ranging from white to pink to purple. The flowers often give off a lovely vanilla-like scent and typically bloom from mid or late summer into fall.
Joe Pye weed is a lovely native wildflower that’s attractive to bees, butterflies, songbirds, and even hummingbirds. It’s also low maintenance and extremely easy to grow.
Joe Pye weed is an herbaceous perennial, which means it will die back to the ground in the winter and pop up again in the spring.
Why Grow Joe Pye Weed?
You might still be feeling cautious about a plant that’s called a weed, but there are lots of reasons to add it to your garden.
Just like butterfly weed and milkweed, Joe Pye weed is a native wildflower that has been poorly named. Under the perfect conditions, it can grow enthusiastically, but there are many newer and better behaved cultivars you can grow.
As a native plant, Joe Pye weed is extremely easy to grow and very low maintenance. It rarely suffers from pests or diseases and even deer aren’t very fond of eating it.
Bees, butterflies, and other pollinators are attracted to the pollen-rich flowers of Joe Pye weed. You’ll also draw songbirds later in the year when they come to snack on the seeds that form. This plant is great for growing in a butterfly garden or native wildflower area.
Joe Pye weed also has great landscape appeal. It’s tall nature is suited for the back of the border where it will bloom over the heads of shorter plants.
Native species of Joe Pye weed will have a towering presence in your garden. Newer cultivars are shorter but still grow at least 2-3 feet tall.
Main Native Species
Most gardeners opt for one of the newer hybrids when it comes to using Joe Pye weed as a landscaping plant. If you’re more interested in growing native varieties, here are the main ones found in North America:
- Sweet Joe Pye Weed (Eutrochium purpureum; aka Eupatorium purpureum)– This variety is found mainly in thickets and woodlands of eastern North America. It has pink or purple flowers. Leaves give off a vanilla-like fragrance when crushed. Plants can grow up to 12 feet tall.
- Spotted Joe Pye Weed (E. maculatum)– This species is smaller, growing about 2-6 feet tall. The stems are often speckled and/or have a purple hue. It blooms with purple or pale lavender flowers. Plants are native to the eastern U.S. and as far west in Canada as British Columbia.
- Hollow Joe Pye Weed (E. fistulosum)– This species also thrives in much of the eastern U.S. and Canada. It looks and grows similarly to sweet Joe Pye weed but has a large central cavity in its stem.
- Steele’s Joe-Pye weed (E. steelei)– Also similar in appearance to sweet Joe Pye weed, this species is found only in the Appalachian mountains. It can be distinguished because of its hairy stems and leaves.
- Three-nerved or Coastal Joe-Pye weed (E. dubium)– Found mainly along the eastern coast of North America, this species has three distinct veins on its leaves. Stems are purplish and speckled and flowers are purple. Plants usually grow 3-4 feet tall.
To use Joe Pye weed as an attractive landscape plant, you’ll likely want to go with a cultivar. There are several that have been developed for flower color and growth habit with a few dwarf varieties available as well.
Most cultivars have pink or purple flowers, although a few have pure white blooms. Some have the added interest of red to purple stems, and ‘Chocolate’ has dark bronze leaves.
Here are some of the top picks:
- ‘Gateway’– This is a more compact variety that grows 4-6 feet tall and has a bushier growth habit. Stems are a reddish-purple color, and the 8 inch flower clusters are dark pink to purple.
- ‘Red Dwarf’– This is probably one of the most compact varieties of Joe Pye weed you’ll find. It grows 2-3 feet tall with a similar spread. Stems are burgundy-red and flowers are pink.
- ‘Little Joe’– This variety tops out at about 3 feet tall. The large blooms are a light purple and fragrant.
- ‘Bartered Bride’– This is a cultivar with pure white flowers. Plants grow to normal size: 6-8 feet tall.
- ‘Atropurpureum’– This is a variety with purple-red stalks and rose pink flower heads. Plants grow 5-7 feet tall. (‘Gateway’ is the dwarf version of this cultivar.)
- ‘Chocolate’– A very unique cultivar, ‘Chocolate’ has leaves with a dark bronze to purple cast. Stems are maroon and flower clusters are pure white. Plants are compact and grow 3-4 feet tall.
How to Grow Joe Pye Weed
You can check for plants at your local garden center in spring or summer, but Joe Pye weed is also very easy to grow from seed. Unlike many perennials, it often flowers in its first year, which means it will make an instant impact on your landscape.
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Growing from Seed Indoors
Plan to start your seeds indoors about 4-6 weeks before your last average frost date in spring. You can use plug trays to seed a lot of plants or small containers if you only want to grow a few.
Joe Pye weed seeds will germinate better if you put them through a process called scarification. This mimics what they would experience out in nature and weakens the seed coat for better germination.
To do this, you’ll need to start 4 weeks ahead of time (8-10 weeks before the last frost).
Mix a soilless seed starting medium with enough water to get it damp. Fill up your trays or pots with the dampened mix and sow your seeds on top. Lightly press them into the soil, but don’t cover them.
Then, put the pots or trays in a plastic bag and place in your refrigerator for 4 weeks. After the 4 weeks is up, put your seeded containers under grow lights or by a sunny windowsill (they need light to germinate).
Germination can be slow and may take up to 4 weeks. Keep the soil damp during this time and cover the trays with plastic domes, if you have them, to keep moisture in.
Once seeds start to germinate, remove the covers and keep your seedlings under lights. Harden them off outside about a week before you plan to plant them in your garden.
Hardening off your plants means gradually getting them accustomed to outdoor weather before planting them in the ground. Take them out during the day and set them somewhere shady. Bring them back in at night and keep repeating the process.
Growing from Seed Outdoors
If you want to sow seeds directly in your garden, you can put them in the ground in the fall and let Mother Nature do the work of germinating them for you.
First, you’ll need to prepare your planting site by weeding and raking the top few inches of soil. Joe Pye weed doesn’t need a lot of fertility to grow well, but you can mix in some compost to feed your plants later.
After you’ve done this, you can scatter your seeds on top of the soil and lightly press or rake them in. Make sure you mark where the seeds are so you don’t plant on top of them in the spring.
The cold and wet of winter will give your seeds the scarification they need to germinate next spring. Once your sprouts come up and grow a few inches, you can thin them out to the proper spacing.
Planting Joe Pye Weed
Getting the Right Growing Conditions
Overall, Joe Pye weed is a very unpicky and low maintenance plant. However, planting it in the right spot is what will set your plants up for success.
The most important factor when planting is moisture level. Joe Pye weed prefers consistently moist soil and will thrive in rain gardens and similar areas. It will do just fine in normal soil but may need watered during dry spells.
Joe Pye weed likes to get adequate moisture in the soil but isn’t picky about soil type or fertility. Established plants can take periods of dryness, although the leaves may looked scorched for a while.
If you have a location with moist soil, you can plant in full sun or light shade. In drier soil and arid climates, plants will do much better with at least afternoon shade.
How to Plant
Plants can go outside after the danger of frost has passed in the spring. Depending on which cultivar you’re planting, spacing should be anywhere from 2-6 feet apart.
Do a little soil prep before planting by weeding, getting rid of rocks and debris, and adding compost if you have some. If you have sandy soil, amending with compost or another organic material will improve your soil’s ability to retain water.
Dig holes that are slightly bigger than the root balls of your transplants in a prepared garden area. Plant your seedlings so that the top of each root ball is level with the soil and fill back around them with loose dirt.
Make sure you water your small plants well by soaking the soil around them (not the leaves). Keep them regularly watered for the next few weeks while they get established.
Joe Pye Weed Care
Watering is one of the biggest maintenance tasks you’ll need to do. If you were able to plant where the soil is consistently moist on it’s own, you won’t have to worry about this step. Otherwise, it’s best to not let the soil dry out for more than a few days.
Watering your plants when they’re small is key to them getting a good root system established. If you get consistent rain, you won’t have to worry about it. Otherwise, be prepared to give them supplemental water for a few weeks.
Mulching around your plants is one way to keep moisture in and will help to keep weeds down as well. You can use a typical shredded bark mulch or go with something lighter like pine needles or straw.
Joe Pye weed doesn’t need much, if any, fertilizer. Side dressing with compost once or twice a year will be more than enough.
Pruning is optional, but it can help with the shape and size of your plants. You can do a hard prune in mid-spring (cut back to 4-8 inches) to renew plants and keep their growth habit a little shorter.
Pests and Problems
The great news is that Joe Pye weed will rarely have any serious pest or disease problems. Occasionally, plants will get fungal diseases like powdery mildew. Proper spacing will decrease the chance of this happening.
Otherwise, even deer and rabbits usually pass Joe Pye weed by, and insects stay away as well. Just one of the many reasons to grow this plant!
Once you have mature clumps of Joe Pye weed, you can divide them to get more plants and to keep your existing ones healthy. Division is best done in the fall after plants stop blooming or in the spring before they start blooming.
Dig in a circle around the crown of the plant you want to divide, getting as much of the root system as possible. Use a sharp shovel to divide the clump so that there’s one stem per plant.
Joe Pye weed works nicely with other perennial flowers like Rudbeckia and coneflowers. Making a native garden will give you something beautiful and extremely low maintenance.
Replant one of the stems where the original was and plant the others somewhere else in your garden (or give them away).
Joe Pye weed also sows itself easily by seed, although some cultivars will not come true from seed. You can let plants do this to get more seedlings, or you can weed them up if you don’t want them to spread.
Joe Pye Weed in the Garden
Joe Pye weed adds some architecture to your garden and is good at setting off lower growing plants. As you design with it, remember its moisture requirements and use it with other plants that will thrive in those conditions.
It works well with other native perennial wildflowers like purple coneflower, bee balm, black-eyed Susans, and swamp milkweed. You can also set it off nicely with ornamental grasses like bluestem, feather reed grass, and Miscanthus.
Now that you know all about growing this easy-to-care-for plant, it’s time to get some going in your garden so you can enjoy it for years to come!
Jen is a master gardener, interior designer and home improvement expert. She has completed many home improvement, decor and remodeling projects with her family over the past 10 years on their 4,500 sf Victorian house. She is also a passionate farmer who keeps goats, chickens, turkeys cows and pigs on her farm, and an instructor for her community’s Organic and Sustainable Farming project.