Tri-coloured Bumble Bee pollinating Joe Pye weed [courtesy Macphail Woods]

Joe Pye or Josie Pye?

The Nature of PEI | Gary Schneider

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One beautiful fall afternoon, I found myself wondering if the “Joe Pye” of Spotted-Joe-Pye-weed had any connection to “Josie Pye” of Anne of Green Gables fame. I do realize that they can’t be related—one was a real person, one is a fictional character. But the names are just too close. I don’t know if Josie Pye was meant to represent the female version of Joe Pye weed, a native wildflower found across the province.

The common story about Joe Pye is that he was a New England herbalist, who may or may not have been Indigenous. Legend has it that during the mid-1600s he used the leaves of this plant—which are said to promote sweating—to cure typhoid fever. 

In some ways, Josie Pye does reflect the personality of Joe-Pye-weed. A bit bristly, hard to get along with (or to march through), less beloved than some of our other native wildflowers, even somewhat common. It seems that Lucy Maud Montgomery was having fun with Josie Pye’s name and character.

Yet in my mind, this perennial is an exceptional plant, an important component of our native biodiversity. The large pink-purple flowers grow on tall stalks and can completely dominate suitable habitat that has wet soil and full sun. The flowers bloom until we have a severe frost. Where you find these flowers, you’ll find butterflies, bees, wasps, midges, moths, beetles and other pollinators. They are often described as “butterfly magnets” and throughout the late summer and early fall will attract Viceroys, Monarchs, Fritillaries, Skippers, Swallowtails and more. Hummingbirds will also stop by for nectar.

An additional benefit is that once the plants produce seeds, smaller bird species such as the American goldfinch will show up for a feed. This is also true of the coneflowers that attract large numbers of goldfinches. It is like getting two plants for the price of one.

If you’re driving through the Miscouche area, the wetlands along the sides of the roads are full of this plant. It is a bit of a rough and rugged flower head, but that doesn’t make it any less beautiful. The arboretum at Macphail Woods has a large, prominent patch, and it is one of our fall favourites.

We’ll often grow these plants with the closely related Boneset, as well as Swamp milkweed, Cutleaf coneflower, Blue vervain, and Blue flag Iris. These are just some of the great pollinator mixtures that can be created with native wildflower species. As one of our taller species, these should be planted in large blocks, or as a backdrop for shorter native plants. The clumps can be mixed and matched, but the Swamp milkweed and Joe-Pye-weed have similar colours, as do the Blue vervain and Blue flag Iris. The brilliant yellow of the coneflowers will be the eye-catcher for sure, while the white Boneset flowers provide another lovely aspect to the planting.

The flower heads contain hundreds of seeds. These can be dried (we hang them upside down in a paper bag in a dry place) and planted either in the fall or in the spring. Germination seems to be better when the seeds are gently raked in, not buried under soil. When fall planting, lightly mulch the soil with wood chips, which should then be removed in early spring.  

Once established, larger plants can be divided in the spring into four or more sections and replanted. In this way you can get larger plants more quickly.

This is another great native plant to keep on your radar. You won’t be disappointed.

Gary SchneiderThe Nature of PEI