My dog and I left the barely cool shade of the flood plain forest and started walking across the field under the glare of the midday sun. A flash of white caught my eye and I moved closer for a look. There it was–Boneset. During just the time I took to stop and take a few photos sweat was pouring down my face and arms and my dog’s tongue was hanging out the side of her mouth. Amidst an August heat wave, surrounded by the song of the cicadas, it’s hard to even think about winter colds and flu, but blooming Boneset reminded me that season is indeed around the corner and now is the time to harvest and prepare.
Boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum)
Boneset is a native wildflower found in the eastern half of the United States and the upper Midwest. It is commonly distributed across the state of Minnesota. Boneset is a member of the Asteraceae family, a giant plant family that contains many, many medicinal plants like Dandelion, Burdock, Prickly and Wild Lettuce, among others. Boneset likes it’s feet wet, so to speak. You are most likely to find it in the sun in damp fields or along the shores and banks of lakes, ponds, streams and wetlands.
The second part of Boneset’s botanical name, perfoliatum, describes the unique arrangement between the leaves and stem of Boneset. The opposing leaves clasp completely around the stem and the stem appears to perforate or grow through the leaves. This is unusual and makes it very easy to identify Boneset. Another common name for Boneset is Thoroughwort, which also reference this leaf/stem arrangement.
“The leaves and flowers of this plant are among the truly valuable remedies of our native Materia Medica. They have long been employed in family practice, and deserve to be esteemed as one of the most useful medicines of the people; and though their intense bitterness has caused them to fall largely into disuse, they merit much more attention than is now given them by the profession”.
These words were written by physiomedicalist physician, William Cook in 1869, but they could have been written today. Boneset is indeed a truly valuable remedy and merits more attention. You can find Boneset it some herbals, but it is certainly not as widely used and written about as it could be.
Boneset is a deep, profound remedy immune system used traditionally for both mild and serious illnesses. One of the key indications for Boneset is intermittent fever or fever that alternates with chills. This is a characteristic of many illnesses like malaria and dengue fever. Boneset was historically a treatment for these types of illness and was used as an alternative to quinine. In contemporary times, the herbalist or herbal user is most likely to use Boneset for influenza or other upper respiratory tract illnesses characterized by fever or alternation of fever and chill. Boneset also relieves the deep muscular aching or a feeling of aching all the way into the bones that people can experience with the flu. Boneset is rich in sesquiterpene lactones, like Echinacea (also in the Aster family) and polysaccharides, also found in Echinacea and Baptisia, two other excellent deeply immune stimulating herbs. In my practice when dealing with lowered immunity, chronic respiratory infections, folks who roll from one illness right into the next, I consider Boneset alongside these other great immune system remedies.
Folk tradition holds that cold Boneset infusion is a liver and g.i. tract tonic when consumed cold. These uses are very uncommon today. Hot infusion was traditionally used as a diaphoretic to promote the opening of the pores and sweating to move a fever through. Boneset aids in decongestion. Boneset is a remarkably bitter herb and the infusion is unpalatable for many people and I find that drop doses of tincture are effective for relieving deep aching of the muscles and helping the body to break free of the fever/chill cycle.
One of my herbal teachers, Matthew Wood, teaches that the deeply bitter herbs have an effect on the endocrine system, namely the hypothalamus. The hypothalamus is considered the master gland, which communicates the pituitary which in turn communicates with the sex glands. The hypothalamus controls body temperature and plays a role in feverish illness. Matthew taught that deep bitters provoke a shivering response, much like the shaking and shivering of a chill and act to sort of reset the hypothalamus so to speak. In the case of Boneset, this means helping the body to break out of a fever/chill cycle. Working off this theory, I use it for hormonal imbalance in women. I almost always consider and test for Boneset when a women presents with deep seat, long term hormonal and endocrine issues. I find it especially helpful for PCOS, and sometimes for debilitatingly painful periods and sometimes for acne with a hormonal component.
While it does have a cooling effect on the body during a fever via the mechanism of sweating, it is really mostly a warming herb and should be used for cold imbalances.
Safety and Dosage:
Some speculate that due to the presence of sesquiterpene lactones, Boneset could cause allergic reactions in people who are allergic to other related Asteracea plants. Aside from potential allergy, Boneset is a very safe herb that has no known toxicity or dangers associated with use. It is a strong herb. I find it effective in small doses of 1-3 drops. I recommend using these tiny doses under the tongue every 2-4 hours.