So, here it is flu season one more time. It usually hits around Christmas when we are tired, stressed out, running on very little sleep and uncomfortably full of rich foods. As with most conditions that plague us, there’s a herb for influenza. This frequent holiday gift from our local viral community responds well to treatment with boneset. Also known as agueweed, Indian sage, feverwort and thoroughwort, it is a kissin’ cousin of Echinacea. Its Latin name is Eupatorium perfoliatum and it should not be confused with knitbone (comfrey, Symphytum officinale) or Joe Pye weed (Eupatorium purpureum).
Knowledge of the medicinal properties of boneset was gifted to our pioneer ancestors by the First Nations of Eastern North America. These locals taught the newcomers to use the plant in steaming, hot infusions (teas) to lower fevers, relieve congestion and alleviate the muscle aches & deep bone pain in the limbs and back so characteristic of flu. The pain was likened to that of a broken bone so that influenza was known as “break-bone fever” and “boneset” was the cure.
It had no equal as a cough, cold & fever remedy during the 18th & 19th centuries. The attic or woodshed of almost every farmhouse had bunches hanging down from the rafters, ready for immediate use should some family member be taken ill. American Civil War troops received boneset infusions not only to relieve the fevers of malaria but also as a tonic to stay healthy enough to carry out the daily duties of shooting and being shot.
In modern laboratories, sesquiterpene lactones & polysaccharides isolated from boneset demonstrated immune stimulant activities. Boneset also contains volatile oils that mimic the action of human killer T cells, the explosives experts of our immune systems.
Boneset loves wet soil and can be used in the garden to replace the need for drainage tile. Medicinal plants that like wet feet such as elderberry, marshmallow and plantain provide a convenient way to wild crop wet ground without paying for drainage. How interesting that all these plants also have expectorant properties, draining congestion from the human respiratory system. Is it possible that we are integral in the web of nature, after all?