Boneset, the cure for all things

StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//img-iXtP32nguL.jpg’, ‘Photo by Dr. Robert Hedeen’, ‘Boneset has been used to treat many common and tropical diseases.’);

Boneset (Eupatorium perforiatum) is the plant with the medicinal sounding name that is sometimes confused with the exquisite Queen Anne’s lace or wild carrot. It blooms from July late into October and displays its flat-topped cluster of white flowers when most of the other wildflowers have faded from the landscape. Botanists call this type of flower array a corymb, whereas the Queen Anne’s lace’s inflourescence is classified as an umbel. Boneset is a member of a large plant family known as the Asteraceae (formerly the family Compositae), which includes the daisy, aster, thistle and many others.

Boneset is sometimes called Thoroughwort and grows to a height of 4 feet over most of North America east of the Rocky Mountains. It is common in the Rock River Valley. It grows in wet places generally—in swamps, along the fringes of ponds and streams, in ditches, on well-watered banks, and along roads where overhanging trees keep the roadsides shady and damp. Other names given to this interesting plant include ague weed, crosswort, feverwort, Teasel, vegetable antimony, and wild sage.

The grayish-white flower spray at the top of the plant may be as much as 6 inches in diameter and has the appearance of a flat-topped white goldenrod. But, to the casual observer, the most curious thing about boneset is the manner in which the stem appears to grow right through the leaves. This is particularly true of the lower and larger ones that are completely joined at the base and reach out like a pair of narrow-based triangles from 4 to 8 inches in length. Thoroughwort is the name commonly used for this plant in England and is a reference to this habit of the stem growing “thorough” or through the leaves. The specific part of the scientific name, perforiatum, is Latin for “through the leaf.”

A possible explanation for the name boneset is that formerly a tea made of the dried leaves was thought to be useful in alleviating the symptoms of the acute viral disease, dengue fever, or breakbone fever as it is sometimes called. It has been said that a person suffering from dengue feels as if the bones of his body are breaking and that the afflicted individual is in so much pain and discomfort that he is not afraid he is going to die but is afraid he is not going to die. Incidentally, dengue fever is making a comeback in parts of the southern United States, due primarily to the accidental introduction and establishment in recent years of the so-called Asian tiger mosquito from the Far East.

Another possible explanation of the commonly used name of boneset is that folklore has it that “herb doctors” declared that plants with united leaves like this one have the capacity to aid in the knitting back together of fractured bones.

Native Americans used boneset as a treatment for a wide range of infectious and fever-related conditions. Europeans eventually adopted the use of boneset, and extended its traditional uses to the treatment of malaria. When I lived in France, malaria was still a problem in certain southern parts of the country. A French physician friend of mine told me that in certain rural areas, there was always a jar of dried boneset leaves on the shelf to be used to make a tea to be administered for the treatment of the periodic chills and fevers of malaria (ague, as it is sometimes called).

A variety of organic substances have been isolated from boneset including compounds with the “jaw-busting” names of euperfolin, euperfolitn, as well as polysaccharides and flavinoids. In a test tube study, a particular polysaccharide in boneset was found to stimulate immune cell function. This may partially explain its long-time use by herbalists to treat minor viral infections, such as a cold and the flu. Medical doctors, however, order other types of treatment.

The little flower heads of boneset that make up the big cluster are composed of tiny tubular “disk flowers.” This is of little consequence to the casual observer, but it will take on new significance if a hand lens is used to examine the flowers.

The beginning naturalist who always carries a magnifier when he goes afield will be making real progress in his quest for knowledge, and he will appreciate our natural world to a greater extent.

Dr. Robert Hedeen is a former resident of Maryland’s eastern shore and resided in the Chicago area from 1960 to 1971. He is a retired professor emeritus of biological sciences in the University of Maryland system. He has published more than 30 scientific papers, has written numerous magazine articles, and is the author of two books on the natural history of the Chesapeake Bay.

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