Sunday, August 16, 2009

Apple #403: Ironweed, not Joe Pye-Weed

I originally posted these pictures and identified this plant as Joe Pye-Weed. But it turns out I was mistaken. So I had to take down the post and re-do it.

Yes, the Apple Lady sometimes makes mistakes. But she fixes them as soon as she becomes aware of them!

New York Ironweed, not Joe Pye-Weed.
(Photo by the Apple Lady)

This plant that I have seen growing here and there in my town is actually New York Ironweed.

It was an easy error to have made, confusing Joe Pye-Weed and Ironweed. Both plants
  • Like to grow taller than any other plants around it.
  • Bloom at the end of summer--late July or early August--through October or the first frost.
  • Like to grow in moist soils, along riverbanks, or along roadways.
  • Are fast-growing and may overtake other plants in your garden.
  • Are very popular with the butterflies.

But the major difference between this plant, New York Ironweed, and Joe Pye-Weed is the color. Joe Pye-Weeds may be dusty pink or white. New York Ironweed is a vibrant, brilliant purple. Even though I put my trusty camera on a setting that is supposed to capture foliage in all its splendid color, these photos -- and other photos I've seen online -- don't quite capture the intensity and depth of the purple in these flowers. It's really astonishing and magnificent.

New York Ironweed buds & blossoms -- super-purple
(Photo by the Apple Lady)

Other differences include:
  • Sweet Joe Pye-Weed (Eupatorium purpureum) smells like vanilla.
  • Spotted Joe Pye-Weed (Eupatoriadelphus maculatus) has flecks of purple on the stems.
  • Coastal plain Joe Pye-Weed (Eupatoriadelphus dubius) grows along the Atlantic coast.

So we know it's not Joe Pye-Weed. But it is a species of Ironweed. But which one? There are about 30 species of them, growing anywhere in the United States from Montana, Utah, and Arizona eastward.

I used the USDA Plants database distribution maps to narrow the options down to 4. Close contenders include
  1. Giant Ironweed (Vernonia gigantea)
  2. Prairie Ironweed (Vernonia faciculata)
  3. Missouri Ironweed (Vernonia missurica).
The shape of the buds of those others wasn't quite the same, or the color was more pink than purple, or the length of the petals on the flowers was different, or, as is the case with the Missouri Ironweed, the stems were really hairy. No hairy stems here.

So I am fairly certain I have this plant identified correctly now as New York Ironweed (Vernonia noveboracensis).

Now that we've got all those errant identifications out of the way, let's talk about New York Ironweed. In addition to characteristics I've already mentioned above (tall, blooms in late summer, grows in moist areas or along roadways, big hit with the butterflies), here are some facts about our friend the New York Ironweed:

More buds on the New York Ironweed. The darker, spear-like leaves belong to the Ironweed.
(Photo by the Apple Lady)

  • They are called ironweed because their thick, tough stems stay pretty much intact through winter.
  • They grow to be about 2-8 feet tall.
  • They bloom in late summer.
  • They like a lot of sun.
  • They grow in moist places, along streams or marshes, or also along roadways.
  • Butterflies & bees love them. Cattle do not. They'll graze around the ironweed.
  • If you plant these in your garden, you may discover that they crowd out other plants or grow way faster than everything else and take over. If so, thinning them out of pinching back the seeds in the spring keeps them in check.
  • It is probably this variety of ironweed after which William Kennedy's novel, Ironweed, was named.
  • Ironweed takes place in Albany, New York, and tells the story of an alcoholic, Francis Phelan, who returns home 22 years after having killed his child and left. The book makes lots of comparisons between Phelan and the ironweed plant: disregarded and unwelcome (weed) yet strong and persevering even in harsh conditions (iron).
  • And I will reiterate, the color of these plants is tremendous.

New York Ironweed
(Photo by the Apple Lady)

New York Ironweed
USDA Plants database, ironweed
North Creek Nurseries, Vernonia noveboracensis: New York Ironweed
Connecticut Botanical Society, New York Ironweed
Virginia Tech Weed Identification Guide, New York Ironweed: Vernonia noveboracensis, New York Ironweed
Easy Wildflowers, Vernonia Ironweed Seed & Plant
Joe Pye-Weed
Marcia Bonta, Naturalist Writer, August Natives
David Beaulieu,, Landscaping, Joe-Pye Weed
Kemper Center for Home Gardening, Eupatorium purpureum
Dave's Garden, Plant Files: Sweet Joe Pye Weed
Brenda Hyde, Old-Fashioned Living, Growing Joe-Pye Weed
USDA Plants Database, joe pye weed
University of Michigan - Dearborn, Native American Ethnobotany database, Eupatorium purpureum L.


  1. Thank you for linking to my article on Joe-Pye weed. I found this blog post on ironweed vs. Joe-Pye weed interesting, so I'll be posting about it on my own blog for August 19.

  2. ...thanks for all the research. All along, I thought this plant was Joe-Pye Weed too. Great post!

  3. What do we know about Joe Pye?

  4. Thanks, Kelly & David. And to Anonymous, that information was originally in my erroneous blog post when I thought this plant was Joe-Pye Weed. I can't remember everything I discovered now, except that Joe Pye was a native medicine man in Massachusetts during the Colonial period. Somebody had typhoid fever, and he gave that person this weed, and that person's typhoid fever went away. So the plant was named after the medicine man and called Joe-Pye Weed.

  5. Guys they look nothing alike. Joe is pink, NYI is very purple. The flower head on Joe is tight. NYI has more aster or boltonia type flowers.

    Both are loved by butterflies!

  6. Where can I buy Ironweed and Joe Pie weed in New York?

  7. I don't know, most recent Anonymous. Call your local garden center and ask. Try the Yellow Pages.

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