Native Plant: Common boneset is perfect for rain gardens


Often, the common name given to a plant reflects the benefits early healers believed the plant possessed. Such is the case for the common boneset, Eupatorium perfoliatum.

The bases of common boneset’s long, narrow, lance-shaped leaves fuse together, and itappears as if they are perforated by the stem. To early herbal healers, this indicated the plant would be good for setting bones and the leaves were wrapped with bandages around splints.

In Native American traditional medicine, extracts from the leaves were used to treat Breakbone fever (now called Dengue fever), fever so high that it caused the bones to feel as if they were broken.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, European settlers considered it a “cure-all” for all types of colds, flu and infections. Crushed leaves and flowers were dried to make a hot tea, with ginger, anise or honey often was added to counteract the bitter taste.

However, in modern medicine, there is insufficient evidence to support its effectiveness or safety for use today.

In the garden, boneset is a North American perennial in the aster family, growing from Canada to Florida and as far west as the Dakotas. It prefers moist, rich soil and is suitable for rain gardens.

It spreads via rhizomes and is clump-forming, so it needs room to expand, growing 2–6 feet tall and spreading 2-4 feet.

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The stem is covered with long white hairs and is unbranched, with the exception of a few flowing side stems near the apex of the plant. The leaves, growing up to 8 inches long and 2 inches wide, are narrow, tapering, serrated and opposite, with deep grooves that give them a reptilian look.

The stems terminate in large, flat-topped clusters of tiny, tubular, fragrant white flower heads 2–8 inches across.

Each floret sits on a thin stem, giving it a fuzzy, floppy look. Blooming late summer into fall, followed by seed heads, common boneset provides interest and food for birds into the winter.

The flowers attract native bees, wasps, butterflies and hummingbirds, as well as predatory insects that prey on pests. It is the host for 32 species of butterflies and moths.

The common boneset stem is covered with long white hairs and is unbranched with the exception of a few flowing side stems near the apex of the plant.

In winter, the hollowed-out stems can house solitary bees. The bitter leaves make it deer-resistant.

Growing requirements

Hardiness zones: 3–8

Sun: Full sun to partial shade

Water: Medium to wet; will tolerate some periods of flooding; not drought-tolerant

Maintenance: Low

Soil: Prefers soil high in organic matter but will tolerate clay; moist to wet with good drainage

Propagation: Seed, divisions

Pests and diseases: Leaves are favored by grasshoppers, flea beetles and sawflies.