Bonesets – September Plant of the Month

Bonesets are the September plants of the month. Members of the Aster Family, and closely related to blazingstars, bonesets are found primarily from the Rocky Mountains eastward. The name boneset comes from break-bone fever, an influenza-like fever, which causes severe bone pain. Native Americans used Eupatorium perfoliatum (Common boneset) to treat the fever.

Native to North America, there are 35 species of bonesets, from 2 genuses, Eupatorium and Eutrochium. Before a change in classification, bonesets also included false bonesets (Brickellia), blue mist flower (Conoclinium), and white snakeroot (Ageratina). However, we are more concerned with the landscape use of the true bonesets and Joe Pye weeds.

Here in the Central Great Plains, we have 7 species of bonesets for use in gardens. They are not only pollinator favorites, but their use in landscape beds is well-known. Joe Pye weeds, especially, are large plants which headline the back of the border or center of the bed. Bonesets can be found wild along wet edges, streambanks, and edge of the woods. Medicinally, they are prized by holistic and natural healers.

Pollinators of Bonesets

According to Pollinators of Native Plants by Heather Holm, the white flowers of tall, late, and common bonesets are visited by a large number of pollinators. Among these include bees, bumblebees, wasps, flies, soldier beetles, assassin bugs, and butterflies. Several moth species utilize these plants as hosts for their larvae.

On the more colorful Joe Pye weeds, which can have pink, reddish, or white flowers, butterflies are more apt to visit. But still, bumblebees and other native bees frequent these, including the endangered Rusty Patched Bumblebee.

pollinators of bonesets

Growing Bonesets in the Garden

Besides being found in the wild, bonesets, especially Joe Pye weeds, are used in all types of garden settings. The taller specimens are good for back of the border as well as the center of island beds. The white flowers and upright plants of tall and common boneset are useful in Monarch Waystations, butterfly gardens, and meadows.

Plant Joe Pye weeds (Eutrochium species) in full to part sun conditions. I have noticed that a specimen of purple Joe Pye weed (Eutrochium purpureum) prefers the south side of our office building, where it thrives in the hot sun reflecting off the limestone walls. In this spot, it usually blooms 2 weeks earlier than other cultivars. Joe Pye weeds grow 4 to 7 feet tall by 3 to 5 feet wide. They prefer well-drained to slightly moist soil. And they like it hot.

Cultivars and Species

Picking a species depends mostly on the amount of space available in the garden. If you have the space, planting a true species of either spotted or purple Joe Pye weed (Eutrochium species) will reward you with many pollinators. The true bonesets (Eupatorium species) however, can fit into smaller areas.

types of true bonesets

Purple and Spotted Joe Pye Weed (Eutrochium purpureum and macultatum)

These are the most common species for landscape consideration, though a few cultivars have been developed.

  • ‘Gateway’ grows 5 to 6 feet tall by 4 feet wide. It has rich purple flowers and blooms in late summer.
  • ‘Big Umbrella’ grows 5 to 6 feet wide and 5 feet wide. It also has purple flowers in late summer.
  • ‘Ruby’ grows 3 feet tall and wide with purple flowers.

Common Boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum)

Despite not having any cultivars, this soft-leaved member of the true bonesets is my favorite. It grows 3 to 6 feet tall and 2 to 3 feet wide with soft, gray-green leaves and white flowers. The flowers bloom in late summer and continue on for several weeks, all the way to the first frost and sometimes beyond. The toughness and pollinator attractiveness is what has led me to using this plant in my kitchen garden, as well as in the Monarch Waystation.

Tall and Late Boneset (Eupatorium altissimum and serotiunum)

Although these are rarely seen in landscapes, both are worthy. Tall boneset grows 4 to 6 feet tall and 1 to 3 feet wide. It has smooth leaves and grows in weedy places, like my back pastures. Late boneset can be found along woodland edges. In fact, the first time I found it was along the woods in Jackson Park in Atchison, KS.

Pest and Problems

Being a native plant, bonesets have few detrimental pest problems. In garden settings, powdery mildew can be an issue, but only in wet seasons. There are a few moth species and some leaf miners which cause minor damage, but no real insect pests. Grasshoppers may feed on the foliage.

Companion Plants for Bonesets

purple Joe Pye weed

When you begin to use bonesets in the garden (if you are not already), you will want to use companion plants that not only bloom in succession with them, but also support them when the weather becomes windy. For the biggest problem in the garden may be wind damage, if nothing is planted to protect them. I see this a lot, as homeowners and designers take a plant from its natural setting to a manicured landscape.

If you are setting Joe Pye weeds and true bonesets into an island bed, making them part of the centerpiece presentation, then use the following plants to help maintain order.

When using bonesets in back of the border or meadow gardens, pair them with the following plants.


Bonesets are great, if underused perennials in the garden. They really shine in September, which is why they are the Plant of the Month. Plant them for pollinators, as well as the center of the island bed in full to part sun. And enjoy them!

Happy planting!

author of bonesets

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