Growing Joe Pye Weed: Beautiful, Fragrant and Deer-Resistant

By David Salman

Close-up of Dwarf Red Joe Pye Weed (Eupatorium)
Close-up of Dwarf Red Joe Pye Weed (Eupatorium). This variety grows to only 3 ft. tall.

Not a Weed: The Beauty and Pollinator Value of Eupatorium (Joe Pye Weed or Bonesets)

Gardeners value growing Joe Pye Weed for their big, mounding flower heads that are typically white, shades of pink and occasionally violet-purple. The flowers are loaded with nectar and pollen that attract native bees, honeybees and butterflies. In the fall, many species set copious seeds that are both ornamental as well as useful for attracting and feeding small seed-eating songbirds. The plants are highly resistant to browsing deer and rabbits.

The genus Eupatorium*, commonly known as Bonesets or Joe Pye Weed, are a large group of wildflowers valued in the garden for their large size, robust growth, attractive foliage and large, showy displays of summer through fall flowers. Widely distributed across the northern hemisphere, they can be found in Europe, Asia and North America. However, the Bonesets most commonly in cultivation in the US are native species.

Growing Joe Pye Weed

Most species of Eupatorium can grow to large size and are best used at the back of the perennial border, or in meadows and other wildland plantings where they form an impressive backdrop for other summer and fall blooming perennials and ornamental grasses. In general, these large growing plants prefer fertile soils and sun, although some species are fine in partial shade. Our native species are herbaceous (die back to the ground in winter) and should be pruned back hard in mid-spring to give the new stems room to push out from the crown. Flowers can be deadheaded to reduce re-seeding should it become an issue, although this is usually not required.

Because of these are typically large growing plants, they were used mainly in large gardens. In recent years, however, plant breeders in both North America and Europe have been selecting for more compact growing selections of Eupatorium to make them more useful in smaller gardens. Here are a couple of our High Country Garden favorites.

Little Joe Joe Pye Weed (Eupatorium asteraceae Little Joe)
Little Joe Joe Pye Weed (Eupatorium asteraceae Little Joe) grows to only 24-30" tall.
Red Dwarf Joe Pye Weed (Eupatorium)
Red Dwarf Joe Pye Weed (Eupatorium) is shown with Gros Bleu Lavender.

Eupatorium maculatum 'Red Dwarf' - A European introduction of this native species, 'Red Dwarf' is a vigorous, yet compact grower. Topping out at about 36 inches in height and 24 to 36 in. in width, it's still a medium-large plant, but decidedly smaller than the species which can reach 6 ft. in height. The late summer flowers are mauve-pink and are held by burgundy-red flower stems which make a nice combination with the flowers. 'Red Dwarf' is a more tightly growing, more rounded form than 'Little Joe'.

Eupatorium dubium 'Little Joe' PP# 16,122 - This cultivar of coastal Joe Pye weed was selected for its light purple flowers, stiff upright growth habit and compact size. Topping out at between 3 to 4 ft. and forming a 2 - 3 ft. wide clump, the plant is suitable for both large and small yards. Top rated in the Chicago Botanic Garden Eurpatorium trials, it is recommended for its superior flower production, non-floppy habit and overall vigor.

Planting Joe Pye Weed

Eupatorium plants enjoy fertile soil and moderate to moist soil conditions; thus are referred to as "mesic" (not xeric) plants. They should be planted with other mesic garden perennials. Joe Pye weed is also a good choice for planting in rain gardens.

In more arid Western climates, be sure to give them some afternoon shade, plant them in compost-enriched soil and give them regular irrigation during dry weather. Supplement their water needs by planting in a low spot that collects extra water or near a roof downspout. Mulch generously to maintain even soil moisture.

Joe Pye Weed Companion Plants

Use other late summer/fall bloomers, especially larger growing ones to match Eupatorium in size. Recommended companion plants for Joe Pye Weed include:

Ornamental grasses - Andropogon (Big Bluestem), Miscanthus (Chinese Maiden Hair grass) and Sporobolus wrightii 'Windbreaker' (Giant Sacaton grass), Sporobolus heterolepis (Prairie Dropseed grass), Muhlenbergia capillaris (Coast Muhly) and Panicum (Prairie Switchgrass).

Flowering Perennials - Asclepias incarnata (Swamp Milkweed), Aster (Aster), Coreopsis triperis 'Gold Standard', Echinacea (Coneflower), Monarda (Beebalm), Phlox paniculata (Garden Phlox) and Physostegia (Obedient Plant).

*Note on botanic nomenclature: Recently botanists have broken up the genus Eupatorium into three new genera. Many of our most familiar Joe Pye weeds are now in the genus Eutrochium. But for the sake of familiarity and to avoid confusion, I have used Eupatorium in this blog. Most commercial growers are continuing to use the old genus as well.

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Text and Photos by Founder and Chief Horticulturist David Salman.

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