Travelling the back roads of Algonquin Park in Ontario last month, I enjoyed seeing clumps of Joe Pye weed (Eupatorium maculatum) and Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) brightly blooming in complementary partnership. Returning home, I found a similar scenario with (too much!) goldenrod in the borders and a tall clump of ‘Gateway’ Joe Pye weed (E. maculatum [Atropurpureum Group] ‘Gateway’, 60 x 30 inches / 150 x 75 cm, Zone 4) in full bloom. I like tall plants, and ‘Gateway’ doesn’t disappoint in that respect; it also has attractive wine-red stems and dusky purple flowers in late summer and early fall. Back when I could count on having monarch butterflies in the garden, they were always hovering around this plant, but sadly, there are no monarchs this year.
When I think of Joe Pye weed, it’s always a tall plant. But those crafty hybridizers have been at work breeding short versions that are useful for small gardens and large containers. These new hybrids are smaller versions of their full-size cousin, though not so small as to be described as dwarf. ‘Little Joe’ (E. dubium ‘Little Joe’, 36 x 30 inches / 90 x 75 cm, Zone 5) has pastel, dusky rose-purple flowerheads wide enough to cover the plant when in full bloom. ‘Baby Joe’ (E. dubium ‘Baby Joe’, 27 x 30 inches / 70 x 75 cm, Zone 5) is even more diminutive, and packs a punch with magenta-pink blossoms that are quite an eyeful and by far the most brilliant of all the Joe Pye weeds. These two scaled-down plants are useful in combination with other fall perennials, such as chrysanthemums and Japanese anemones.
In the interest of providing full information, I should also mention ‘Pink Frost’ (E. fortunei ‘Pink Frost’, 30 x 24 inches / 75 x 60 cm, Zone 5), with boldly variegated cream-and-green leaves and small, vivid pink flowers. The blossoms are smaller than the umbrella-like flowerheads of the other plants, but bright enough to make a good show against the fancy foliage. This is an attractive plant, but makes me feel uneasy, because it hardly looks like a traditional Joe Pye weed. It’s another instance of plant breeders pushing the envelope farther than I’m comfortable to go. But you know me — always the last to embrace change.