Infusions of this native perennial herb were widely used in past centuries to treat influenza (flu), then known as “breakbone fever” because of its debilitating effects – hence the common name boneset. White settlers on the continent learned of its uses very early from Native Americans.
Mithridates Eupator (134-63 B.C.), Greek king blooming flower tea of Pontus, inspired the genus name; he was the first person noted to have used a plant of this genus to treat liver complaints. Our plants continue to bring ancient history to life. The species name, perfoliatum, meaning “through the leaf,” reflects an interesting feature of this species: clasping leaves joined around the plant stem, which appears to pierce right through them.
Boneset is an erect, attractive herb growing from one to five feet tall. The unique opposite leaves are long, slender, spear-shaped blades that radiate north-south and east-west up the fuzzy stems. Atop the main stem, dense, flat-topped clusters of small white flowers bloom from July until October in many regions. This native of North America grows from Quebec to Manitoba, south to Florida and Texas, and west into Minnesota, Oklahoma, and Nebraska. Other North American natives in this family of five hundred or more species of perennial herbs include white snakeroot, Eupatorium rugosum, and sweet joe-pye weed, E. purpureum along with Joe-pye weed or smoke weed, E. maculatum. Each of these species is fairly common in the eastern United States and adapts well to the garden. Many other species are native to tropical America.
Boneset is also known as wild sage, Indian sage, feverwort, thoroughwort, and agueweed. Indians must have had many different names for it, too, as various tribes used it to treat numerous common problems. They used the entire plant as
a tonic and stimulant, and the leaves and blossoms as emetics and to kill parasites.
A strong boneset tea served the Meskwaki Indians as a snakebite cure; the Seneca and Mohegans used it as a tonic. For many years, physicians used boneset tea as a substitute for quinine to treat fever. Zuni Indians in New Mexico use the related species E. occidentale to treat rheumatism and arthritis as well as other joint pains. Many American Indian tribes used boneset infusions to treat cold, flu, fever, rheumatism, and arthritic problems.
Boneset shows valuable immune system stimulation. A hot infusion of boneset will relieve symptoms of the common cold and helps to reduce a fever. Boneset tea has been used as a tonic and laxative; it also relieves rheumatism, as well as some skin conditions. Boneset’s upper plant parts, principally blossoms, stems, and leaves, are the choice botanicals used medicinally. A bitter drink, boneset has antibiotic properties and is being explored for anticancer activities.