If you like native plants, then you probably already have a Joe Pye Weed (Eupatorium maculatum) in your garden. Native plants are reliably hardy, they respond well to local conditions and are not “finicky” to grow — a good thing — because in our harsh climate conditions plants need to be tough to survive and perform well.
Joe Pye Weed is rated a Zone 2b plant and will survive the coldest winter without protection. It will be happy in most soil types although it does prefer moist soil and in the wild is often found near bogs or growing in ditches where the soil remains moist. It will wilt on very hot summer days if the soil dries out, so in the garden it should be planted where it will get some respite from the hot afternoon sun and where it has a ready source of water. It should not be planted in full shade however, because Joe Pye Weed likes either full sun or part sun.
The large narrow serrated leaves are bright green when they are young but become a dull dark green as they age. It is a large plant, growing over two metres tall and having a spread of at least a metre, so not a plant for a tiny urban garden. It has an upright growth habit and the bottom 30 cm or so will look quite bare if it is planted by itself as a specimen plant, so should have companion plants — ideally underplanted with a low-growing perennial or ground cover — such as perennial geraniums, lady’s mantle, lamium and nettle vine. Alternatively it can be placed at the back of a border with shorter plants in front of it.
Joe Pye Weed produces plumes of pink flowers in late summer and fall. It has quite a long bloom period and becomes a focal point of the perennial garden when many others have bloomed themselves out. The individual flowers are quite small but dozens of them are tightly packed onto the large flower heads, and the burgundy stems also add a note of colour.
Propagation is by division. The plants eventually get quite large and sections of the parent plant can be removed and used to start new plants. When planting the new divisions, it is vital that the crown of the plant be planted at or slightly above the soil surface. Joe Pye Weed does not like to be planted too deep. Like the peony, it objects to its crown being covered with a lot of soil. It is relatively low maintenance and other than its need for adequate water, it pretty much takes care of itself. It is usually self-supporting and only needs staking when grown in too much shade.
Joe Pye Weed has many uses in the landscape. Because of its height it adds a vertical dimension to any border. In a large public garden or expansive rural property it can be mass planted, which creates a stunning effect. Its height and substantial size make it a good plant to use as a screen or a summer hedge to shield less attractive parts of the garden from view. It is a wonderful accent plant in the border and when placed near the back of the border — which it usually is because of its height, it becomes a background for other plants in front of it. Because of its fondness for moist soil, it is often used at the edge of garden ponds or in bog gardens, and of course being a native plant, it’s frequently used in naturalized areas and wildflower gardens.
Because Joe Pye Weed is such a tall plant, it has not been extensively used in small urban gardens. As demand grew for a smaller version, dwarf varieties have been developed that only get to a height of a little over one metre and they have a denser, more compact growth habit. The dwarf varieties (all will be labelled Eupatorium dubium), include “Little Joe” and “Baby Joe.” Some of the smaller versions have darker-coloured flowers, tending toward dark rose/purple instead of the dusty rose of the taller kind. These plants have the same attractive burgundy stems and long serrated leaves.
Whether you add a taller Joe Pye Weed or a miniature version to your garden, you will be pleased with the results, as it is sure to add beauty to any landscape.