Joe Pye Weed

On summer hikes in the forests of upstate New York, my dad and I would frequently encounter a beautiful billowing pink cloud of blooms. He introduced me to Joe Pye Weed, pausing between each word, and pronouncing it in a deliberate way. It reminded me of how he introduced a friend, formally including the middle name. This would of course make it unceremoniously be known as Mr. Weed, but I always thought of the plant as Joe.

They grow here wild in the swamp at the edge of my creek and have been seeded by birds into my yard. At the edge of the woods behind my house I’ve encouraged a healthy stand of over a dozen towering plants, from 7 to 10 feet tall. All week they have attracted dozens of pollinators to each flower, ranging from tiny flies and wasps to bees and butterflies.

Here a group of flowers is being visited by the aptly named tiger swallowtail butterfly. They seem especially fond of these blossoms. I watch as they enter the yard, lilting back and forth as they approach. Their graceful flight inevitably takes them to the part of the garden where these plants are massed. At the moment they prefer it to all other flowers, sometimes fighting bees and even each other for access.

Most summers they flower for at least a few weeks, sometimes even longer depending on the weather. They seem to get the most visitors early on, as they first open. In autumn they will provide seeds for a variety of birds, and more plants will grow tracing the flight of these avian visitors. Not every garden has room for their exuberant growth, but I am glad to set aside space in my yard for a plant that provides so much for so many. When I watch them sway on a windy day, I imagine they are nodding to each other and conversing in silent plant language, an extraordinary group of ordinary Joes.