Garden Notes: Boneset once sought as medicine, popularity rising again

It was 1959 or 1960 when Chuck asked me to dance as the band was playing the last song.

I saw him at Staples yesterday. He looks like he still has all his teeth and a full head of hair, although the moustache was new. I’m pretty sure he didn’t see me.

Neither of us would have wanted a reminder of the night he took me home. He wasn’t feeling well and had the beginnings of a cold, but he walked me into the house.

My grandfather was sitting in the rocking chair in the kitchen, and I mentioned that Chuck was getting a cold. Pappy said he had something that would fix him up. He sent one of my little brothers into the cellar for a special tea jar and announced that he would make Chuck some boneset tea. The tea was ready in a few minutes, poured hot and steamy into a cup and Chuck took his first tentative sip.

I could tell it tasted vile, and he swallowed as quickly as the hot beverage would allow. He took a few more sips, then put down his cup and stood. He thanked my grandfather, and I walked him to the door.

I don’t know if the boneset sips cured his cold. I know he didn’t die, and I assume if the tea had bestowed on him the ability to glow in the dark I’d have heard, but that was my first, last and only experience with Chuck and with boneset tea.

Boneset, Eupatorium perfoliatum, was introduced to the colonists by native Americans. It’s a member of the tall Aster family and flowers from July to October. Tall boneset, white boneset, pine barren boneset, it shows up in places that suit it: pastures, along fence rows and lanes and often in wet meadows. Eupatorium is a Blair County native wildflower.

Boneset flowers are large white, flat clusters, decorated with an upright fringe. The leaves are its most distinctive feature. They join on either side of a hairy stem, appearing as though the stem has pierced the center. Its distinctive arrangement of leaves and stem led to the assumption that wrapping the leaves in bandages around splints would help mend broken bones. However, boneset is used to cure fevers and never to repair bones. Influenza epidemics were once common and victims of dengue fever were especially stricken.

Contracting dengue fever was so painful and so debilitating that it was called break bone fever. A tea made from both boneset flowers and leaves induced heavy sweating that could break the fever, and offer a measure of relief to patients suffering from this type of influenza.

Boneset was on the official medicine list until the 1950s, but with the development of modern pharmaceuticals, it was dropped.

Today, it is enjoying renewed interest by practitioners of homeopathic medicine. It is now one of the most heavily used herbs in the United States.

Coming up

* 1 to 4 p.m. Sunday, Blair County Historical Society, tour of four Williamsburg area historic homes and the Dempsie Garden, $6 per person.

Contact Teresa Futrick by e-mail at