Blooming along sunny riverbanks and wetlands in late summer, the white-flowering boneset grows where it gets its feet wet, and isn't choked out by an infiltration of invasive plant species
Boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum) is a perennial native ranging from Canada to Florida, and west to the Rocky Mountains that has a long medicinal history with Native Americans, early American settlers and early botanical doctors.
Once someone has seen the perennial boneset, it is very easy to remember how to identify it. Growing between 1- to 4-feet tall, boneset's tough and scratchy leaves are lance-shaped, and clasp opposite each other around the stem, making it look like the stem pierces through a very narrow diamond leaf. Its white flowers actually are called an inflorescence, meaning the larger looking flower is composed of minute flowers.
Traditionally boneset has been a premier herb in reducing the achy symptoms associated with fever. Based on its anti-inflammatory effect, the herb would figuratively "set" a person's bones in "break-bone fever," also known as dengue fever, which makes people feel like their bones are breaking.
Native Americans specifically employed boneset in intermittent fevers that come and go, that occur with illnesses such as malaria.
As a diaphoretic tea, the above-ground parts were boiled and sipped to break fevers through producing a sweat. This use was passed onto early American settlers as a home remedy.
During the 1918 influenza pandemic, boneset was one of the most used herbs to reduce the achy symptoms accompanying the flu. Obviously, with between 20 millions to 40 million influenza deaths, boneset was not a miracle cure against the flu, but it would have been mostly used in reducing the life-threatening physiological immune response to the virus, not as an anti-viral.
Due to its use in fevers and influenza, pharmaceutical researchers have experimented whether boneset has immune stimulating properties. Existing research has found that boneset doesn't necessarily work as an immunostimulant, but rather as a cytokine modulator, meaning it reduces the inflammatory chemicals in the body produced by the immune system in reaction to infection. Cytokines produce the unpleasant flu-like symptoms that make people want to stay in bed, and away from other people. Specific cytokines mediated by boneset are cytokines interleukin-1alpha, interleukin-1beta and tumor necrosis factor.
As an extremely bitter tea, boneset isn't very popular. Adding honey or elderberry syrup would help the flavor significantly.
Although many Native American tribes and traditional herbalists have used boneset as a tonic, taken over a few weeks, for debilitating conditions, safety concerns have been raised that boneset contains hepatotoxic pyrrolizidine alkaloids (PAs). PAs appear in other medicinal plants, such as comfrey, which are presently used cautiously in short duration if at all.
Not only offering aid to people with fevers, boneset is found to be vital to a healthy ecosystem. According to Michigan State University research presented in the journal "Ecological Entomology," boneset offers a great benefit among native and exotic plants for decreasing agricultural pests when planted in an integrated agricultural system of crops and nonagricultural plants.
• Holli Richey has a master's degree in herbal medicine and lives in Athens. For more information, visit her blog hollirichey.com, or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.