Medical Attributes of Eupatorium perfoliatum - Boneset

By Georgina Robinson, George Agurkis, Anthony Scerbo
Wilkes University, Wilkes-Barre, PA

July, 2007
Eupatorium perfoliatum, commonly known as boneset, is a member of the Asteraceae (aster family). Plants of this species are hairy perennial herbs with yellowish-white flowers and opposite leaves joined at the base (Culbreth 1927). They are common to swamps, meadows, and embankments in eastern United States extending from Nova Scotia to Florida, inland to the Dakotas and Texas (Kartesz 2007).  

Boneset, also known as Thoroughwort, Agueweed, Indian Sage, and Feverwort, has historically been known for its role as a folk remedy. Boneset was used by Native Americans to treat a variety of ailments including sore throat, fever, chills, irregular menstrual cycle, epilepsy, gonorrhea, kidney trouble, and to induce vomiting, to cure snakebites, to expel worms (Innvista 2007), and to treat colds and flu, especially in the eastern United States (Klenner 1971, Innvista 2007).  Usually, a tea with a very bitter taste would be made from the Eupatorium perfoliatum. When consumed the results were an overnight cure of the disease.  Farmers commonly had a supply of dried boneset on hand in order to treat their cold or flu (Klenner 1971).  Boneset is said to be antiviral, antibacterial, anti-parasitic, a sweat promoter, a febrifuge, a decongestant, a mild laxative, a mucous membrane tonic, an immunostimulant, a smooth muscle relaxant, anti-inflammatory, cytotoxic, a mild emetic, a peripheral circulatory stimulant, and a gastric bitter (Innvista 2007).

The source of the common name of boneset is not clear. One proposition is that dengue fever (a mosquito-transmitted viral infection marked by muscle and bone pain), formally known as breakbone fever, was relieved by boneset (Innvista 2007).  Another suggests that boneset is used by indigenous people to heal broken bones (Innvista 2007). In the early years of medicine, Eupatorium perfoliatum was placed on bandages of broken bones.  The rationale behind this therapy was one of Doctrine of Signatures.  The users believed that the jointed appearance of the leaves was an indication that this plant healed broken bones (Connecticut Botanical Society 2005).  Boneset has also been shown to help treat wounds, cuts and other skin problems (Dweck 1997).

The key therapeutic components include polysaccharides, flavonoids, diterpenes, sterols, volatile oils, sesquiterpene lactones including eupafolin, and vitamins and minerals including magnesium, calcium, niacin, and phosphorus (Innvista 2007).  Potential adverse reactions to Boneset can comprise of allergic reaction, diarrhea, hepatotoxicity, and vomiting (Johnson 2002). 

Despite the historical use of boneset as a cure-all drug, research in the efficacy of the extracts is lacking.  Scientific research has shown that in fact boneset does have an effect on treating the flu and common cold (Klenner 1971). Abascal & Yarnall 2006 in a review noted that a group of individuals exposed to the 1918 influenza pandemic were treated with herbal medicines including boneset. This alternative medication was extremely successful in treating influenza and alleviated the painful symptoms of the influenza and prevented pulmonary complications and death.  Research reported a 0.6% fatality rate with the usage of the herbal treatment compared to a 3% rate that the influenza claimed without the treatment.  The research even showed the properties of counteracting cytokine dysregulation caused by severe cases of the disease (Abascal & Yarnall 2006).

A second study treated 53 outpatients with either aspirin or Eupatorium perfoliatum D2 for the common cold.  The results demonstrated that both aspirin and Eupatorium perfoliatum were equally effective in reducing the symptoms of the common cold (Gassinger 1981).

A third study isolated polysaccharide fractions from the alkaline –water extracts of boneset and several other plants.  Results determined immunostimulating activity from the fractions, which helps in fighting infections such as the common cold and flu (Wagner 1985).

In 1978, a United States patent was filed for work done with Eupatorium perfoliatum on dogs with arthritic conditions. According to the patent record, Eupatorium perfoliatum along with a special mixture of plants, including nettle and broom tops, was shown to treat the ailment (Spies 1978). However, no studies were found about human trials of this combination therapy.

Recent studies using a homeopathic approach showed that malaria-infested mice fed Eupatorium perfoliatum extracts demonstrated a significant decrease in rates of Plasmodium parasite multiplication. This study was not able to find a mechanism of action, but the authors did conclude that Eupatorium perfoliatum might be a good candidate for alternative or complementary medication (Lira-Salazar et. al. 2006).

Other studies have shown that the sesquiterpene lactones isolated from Eupatorium perfoliatum have cytotoxic and anti-tumor properties (Herz et al. 1977).  One study found an extract of Eupatorium perfoliatum to have high cytotoxic effects, similar to a standard cytotoxic agent, chlorambucil.  The extract also showed weak antibacterial activity against gram-positive test organisms (Habtemariam & Macpherson 2000). Another study measured the cytokine levels in stimulated white blood cells from 23 tumor patients.  The patients underwent a 4-week oral treatment with spagyric extract from Eupatorium perfoliatum, Echinacea angustifolia, and Thuja occidentalis.  After therapy with the complex, no significant alteration in production of cytokines could be found in comparison with controls.  The complex had no detectable effect on lymphocyte activity and was deemed a non effective treatment at that application and dosage (Elsasser-Beile et al. 1996).  More research should be conducted regarding Eupatorium perfoliatum’s anti-tumor and cytotoxic properties.

In conclusion, the scant research conducted to date suggest that boneset may have many beneficial effects such as fighting off cold and flu, treating malaria, boosting the immune system, and may have some effect on reducing tumors.  However, more research must be completed in order to determine the mechanism by which these beneficial effects occur.  In doing so we could greatly improve the treatment of many infectious diseases. The use of boneset in modern day medicine, specifically in the areas of skin, bones, malaria, cold and flu, and tumors shows promise.  However, research allowing one to draw a solid conclusion regarding its efficacy is still lacking.


Abascal, K. & E. Yarnell. 2006. Herbal treatments for pandemic influenza: Learning from the Eclectics experience. Alternative and Complementary Therapies. 12(5): 214-221.

Connecticut Botanical Society. 2005. Connecticut Wildflowers: Boneset.

Culbreth, D.M.R. 1927.  A Manual of Material Medica and Pharmacology.

Dweck, A.C. 1997. Skin Treatment with Plants of the Americas. Cosmetics & Toiletries. 112: 57-48, 50, 52-56, 59-60, 63-64, 66.

Elsasser-Beile, U., W. Willenbacher, H.H. Bartsch, H. Gallati, J. Schulte Monting, and S. von Kleist.  Cytokine production in leukocyte cultures during therapy with Echinacea extract.  Journal of Clinical Laboratory Analysis.  10(6): 441-445.

Gassinger, C.A., G. Wiinstel, and P. Netter. 1981. A controlled clinical trial for testing the efficacy of the homeopathic drug Eupatorium perfoliatum D2 in the treatment of common cold. Arzneimittelforschung 31(4): 732-736.

Habtemariam, S. & A.M. Macpherson.  2000. Cytotoxicity and antibacterial activity of ethanol extract from leaves of a herbal drug, boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum).  Phytotherapy Research. 14(7):  575-577.

Herz, W., P.S. Kalyanaraman, G. Ramakrishnan, and J.F. Blount. 1977. Sesquiterpene lactones of Eupatorium perfoliatum. Journal of Organic Chemistry. 42(13) 2264-2271. Boneset.  (Retrieved July 2007)

Johnson, L.P.  2002.  Pocket Guide to Herbal Remedies.  Blackwell Publishing.

Kartesz, J.K. 2007. Eupatorium perfoliatum L. Common boneset. Plants Source & Reference.  United States Department of Agriculture. (Retrieved July 2007)

Klenner, F.R. 1971.  Observations on the dose and administration of ascorbic acid when employed beyond the range of a vitamin in human pathology. Journal of Applied Nutrition. 23(3+4).

Lira-Salazar, G., E. Marines-Montiel,  J. Torrest-Monzon, F. Hernandez-Hernandez, J.S. Salas-Benito. 2006. Effects of homeopathic medications Eupatorium perfoliatum and Arsenicum album on parasitemia of Plasmodium Berghi-infected Mice. Homeopathy. 95: 223-228.

Spies, J.A. 1978. United States Patent: method and compound for treatment of arthritic conditions in dogs. Application #964332.

Wagner, H., A. Proksch, I. Riess-Maurer, A. Vollmar, S. Odenthal, H. Stuppner, K. Jurcic, M. Le Turdu, and J.N. Fang, J.N.  1985. Immunostimulating action of polysaccharides (heteroglycans) from higher plants. Arzneimittelforschung 35(7): 1069-1075.

This paper was developed as part of the BIO 368 - Medical Botany course offered at Wilkes University during the summer of 2007. Course instructor was Kenneth M. Klemow, Ph.D. ( The information contained herein is based on published sources, and is made available for academic purposes only. No warrantees, expressed or implied, are made about the medical usefulness or dangers associated with the plant species in question.

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This page posted and maintained by Kenneth M. Klemow, Ph.D., Biology Department, Wilkes University, Wilkes-Barre, PA 18766. (570) 408-4758,