The common boneset is a great pollinator

Buzz about pollinators

The Nature of PEI | by Gary Schneider

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There is growing interest in protecting pollinators and enhancing their habitat. Many of our provincial watershed groups are continuing their excellent work in protecting not only fish and fish habitat, but also pollinators as well. Pollinator gardens have been popping up in communities and schools across the province.

I often talk about the “big three” of native pollinator plants—swamp milkweed, cutleaf coneflower, and Joe Pye weed. These plants can be showcased in almost any garden, whether for pollinators or simply for beauty. But there are many more plants that could be added to such a mix.

Common boneset is a quickly becoming one of my favourites. Despite its name, it is actually not all that common in the province. The Atlantic Canada Conservation Data Centre has it ranked as an S3, which translates as: vulnerable in the province due to a restricted range; relatively few populations (often 80 or fewer); recent and widespread declines; or other factors making it vulnerable to extirpation.

I do run across it in my travels, but not often. Mostly it is in sunny, damp areas. Boneset produces a cluster of pale white flowers that are usually humming with bees, moths, butterflies, wasps, hover flies, and other insects. The foliage of this plant is quite striking. The leaves are opposite each other but are actually joined, so that the stem appears to poke through the leaves.  In my continuing study of Latin (in truth, about one name a year) I wondered what its scientific name—Eupatorium perfoliatum—meant. Turns out that it is a useful name for identification. While Eupatorium refers to the genus, and is thus not useful unless you are familiar with the related plants, perfoliatum means that the stem perforates the leaves. Few plants in the province have this characteristic, making it a good thing to look for when identifying this species.

Boneset leaves and stems are quite hairy, which is another distinguishing trait. It is a large plant, growing from three to five feet in height and the white flowers are quite attractive as a contrast to the bright yellow of the coneflowers and the deep pink of the milkweed. It is a relatively late-flowering plant, starting in late July and continuing well into September.

For attracting pollinators, Boneset is another plant that I use in large numbers when landscaping. Five is fine, 15 is great, 50 is wonderful. It is nice as a specimen plant, big enough to stand on its own merit. But it really shines in larger clumps. And once the plants mature, they need very little maintenance. They get bigger each year, and tend to smother out most weeds.

This is another native plant that although rare, it is quite easy to propagate. Simply collect mature flowers in the fall from healthy, vigorous plants, and then dry them to release the seeds. These can be planted in the fall, or stored in a cool, dry place for spring planting. They are quite reliable in germinating the first spring, and usually flower the second or third year.  When ready for their final planting spots, place each plant two feet apart. The soil should have adequate amounts of organic matter to retain moisture.

Boneset has a long history of medicinal use and is still a component of some homeopathic remedies. These days, the focus is more on the value it provides to pollinators. It is another native plant that can play important roles in both natural areas and landscaped gardens, and is becoming more popular.

Gary SchneiderThe Nature of PEI
Gary Schneider

Gary began writing for The Buzz in the May 2018 issue. He co-chairs ECO-PEI and started the Macphail Woods Ecological Forestry Project in 1991. The project demonstrates ecologically-sound forest management, with a focus on environmental education, conservation of rare plants, and the restoration of PEI’s native forest. He is an avid birder and lives in Tea Hill.