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  • ljmarkson

Boneset is a Thoroughly Valuable Native Plant

Updated: Sep 20, 2021

My September native plant pick #4 is common boneset (eupatorium perfoliatum), also called thoroughwort because of the way the stems go “through” pairs of leaves.

This shows how the stem appears to "go through" the opposite leaves.

Common boneset has a long history as a medicinal plant. Another common name is feverwort because Native Americans used it for illnesses related to fevers. The name boneset comes the doctrine of signatures, a theory that believed plants that looked like certain body parts could treat them. Boneset looks like broken bones fused together and was used by settlers to treat conditions related to bones, in addition to fevers. It was most famously used for bone-break fever (dengue fever).

As long as there is some sun and moisture, common boneset will thrive. It is a high value plant for a pollinator, butterfly, or rain garden, or for erosion control. Deer don’t love common boneset so it might be a good plant for a restoration project. Mine is growing in a damp, partially sunny mini-meadow . Common boneset is not drought tolerant and has faded away anytime I've planted it in hot dry sunny areas.

Common boneset is thriving in a damp partially sunny area of my yard where I've let a mini-meadow ramble. You can see early goldenrod, cardinal flower, Joe pye weed, jewelweed and small woodland sunflower in this photo.

Perennial common boneset spreads by rhizomes to form colonies and plays well with the other moisture loving native plants in my yard that can withstand occasional flooding. Some of the companion plants for boneset include early goldenrod (solidago juncea), pink turtlehead (chelone lyonii), small woodland sunflower (helianthus microcephalus), obedient plant (physostegia virginiana), jewelweed (impatiens capensis), cardinal flower (lobelia cardinalis), seedbox (ludwigia alternifoli), and sedge varieties (carex)

Common boneset and small woodland sunflower make pretty companion plants.

Most importantly, common boneset is a valuable addition to a yard ecosystem. From late summer through fall, its small fuzzy clusters of white flowers are covered with a variety of pollinators including butterflies, wasps, bees, flies, beetles.

This is just a small representation of the variety of pollinators I routinely see on common boneset! (clockwise starting with top L: grey hairstreak butterfly, bumblebee with full pollen basket, thread-waisted wasp and bumblebee sharing flowers, and a humped beewolf (don't love predatory wasps, but he's a pollinator and part of the ecosystem!

Common boneset is a host plant for multiple moth species. Various insects, including grasshoppers, will eat its leaves.

Spined soldier bugs don't pollinate plants, so this guy is looking for dinner on my very busy patch of common boneset. I have to work hard not to intervene and pick "good" and "bad" bugs in my yard and just let my healthy ecosystem do its thing.

Boneset’s 3–5-foot stems often flop over and lean on the plants around it because of its top-heavy flower umbrella. Until a few years ago, if my plants didn’t stay upright, I would stake them up to make them look neater. They always looked forced and unnatural, and the stems would invariably snap in half during storms anyway. As my yard became more rewilded, I realized that throughout the growing season and over the winter the intermingling of plants provides cover and habitat for wildlife. My aesthetic has shifted and I’ve learned to appreciate and embrace the randomness of how my boneset grows. Now I get to enjoy the natural flower arrangements created by leaving it alone.

The toppled-over common boneset naturally mingles with the shorter white turtlehead, sturdy sweetspire with pink obedient in the background. I couldn't have arranged it better!


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