Many people delight in spring’s ephemeral blooms, as wildflowers come awake after a long winter. I, however, am partial to autumn blossoms. Just before tree leaves change colors, the fields come alive with swaths of radiant goldenrod, bright pops of thistle and perky asters. One fall flower to capture my attention in recent years, though, has been ironweed, a tall plant with a beautiful purple flowerhead. It has quickly become one of my favorites.
The species that grows where I live in Kentucky is giant ironweed (Vernonia gigantea). It’s among the tallest of its kind. It can grow as tall as 10 feet. Other species found across the U.S. include New York ironweed (V. noveboracensis) and smooth ironweed (V. fasciculata). More than 500 species are found worldwide. Members of the Asteraceae family, ironweed plants are characterized by their upright stature and pointed, lance-shaped leaves. They’re also known, of course, for the clusters of purple flat-head flowers on branched flowerheads. They bloom in late summer to early fall. You can spot them across the eastern two-thirds of the U.S. and Canada.
While I love the beauty these flowers bring to the landscape—so much so that they were a featured flower in my September wedding—they have a great history as a medicinal plant. Here are some ways Native American populations have historically used ironweed and some ways scientists believe this plant has value to modern medicine.
1. Blood Cleanser
According to the doctrine of signatures, a purple flower indicates the plant can be used to treat blood conditions, and true to form, ironweed is an alterative herb, or blood cleanser. These types of herbs help the body’s systems function normally and eliminate waste properly. Ironweed root can help reduce hemorrhaging and treat skin diseases, which are often linked to blood issues. V. amygdalina, a species that grows in tropical Africa, has even shown potential for treating malaria, which infects red blood cells.
2. Women’s Herb
Historically, American Indians have turned to ironweed root for all kinds of women’s conditions. It can help regulate menstruation, including helping to bring on a period or lessen a heavy flow, as well as treat vaginal discharge and reduce cramping. It has also been used to help women find relief during childbirth.
3. Digestive Aid
The root of ironweed is a bitter herb, which means it can help to stimulate appetite and aid in digestion. Typically, it is prepared as a root powder or decoction (also known as tea) for this purpose.
4. Cold & Flu Relief
The leaves as well as root can be used to aid in symptoms related to colds and flu. The leaves of ironweed can be made into a tea to be used as a sore throat gargle and the root to treat fever and chills.
A review of ironweed species performed by the Institute of Human Virology at the University of Maryland School of Medicine in 2013 found that the species little ironweed (V. cinera) has the greatest potential for use as a cancer treatment. The University of Hawaii is also conducting study to examine whether ironweed extracts are effective in treating aggressive forms of breast and brain cancer.
Use With Care
As with all plants in the Asteraceae family, use ironweed with caution. These plants can cause allergic reactions, particularly irritated skin. Also take particular care if you have ironweed in an area where you keep livestock, as it can be toxic to animals if they ingest too much.
As you bask in the beauty of this season, don’t overlook the ironweed that might grow in your field. Add it to a hand-crafted seasonal bouquet, or perhaps put it to use in your herbal medicine cabinet.