By Kathleen M Hale, Western Reserve Herb Society
Like my ancestors, I live in a bog. But I have a lot of company, and some of that company is breathtakingly beautiful. One of the most beautiful plants you will ever see hides in plain sight and grows so generously and extravagantly that it sometimes is overlooked. But it lives up to its common name: jewelweed.
Orange jewelweed, Impatiens capensis, is a member of the balsam family, and a North American native, as is the less common yellow jewelweed, Impatiens pallida. It is an annual that blooms from late spring to early fall, flourishing next to ditches, creeks, and damp woodlands. Like other varieties of Impatiens, it is also sometimes also called, “touch-me-not” because when it sets its seed capsule the slightest touch will send those seeds flying.
The seed capsule is why there are so many naturalized colonies of jewelweed, not just in North America, but throughout northern and central Europe, where it was introduced. Jewelweed propagates so enthusiastically that it can actually compete with that aggressive menace garlic mustard.
The plant grows 2 to 5 feet high, and the flowers tremble at the end of delicate stems, suspended and glowing. Although tiny, the flowers present a sort of orchid appearance, one sepal adopting a pouch like shape and another a spur. There is nothing more beautiful than a hummingbird, suspended in mid-air, delighting in jewelweed flowers. And hummingbirds do love their jewelweed and its nectar. Some long-tongued bees also enjoy the pollen. And some bumblebees will nibble the end of the flower spur to make a handy nectar dispenser.
Of course, jewelweed loves its pollinators, since cross pollination is required to set seeds from those showy flowers. But jewelweed also has a Plan B, smaller cleistogamous flowers that never open are not pollinated, and yet can set seeds with much less energy investment from the plant.
Jewelweed is often found in the same area as spring ephemerals, like skunk cabbage, but is also frequently found with a tougher customer: poison ivy. This is particularly extraordinary, because the juice from crushed jewelweed has long been known by Native Americans and modern landscapers as an antidote to poison ivy’s rash-producing oil. Jewelweed juice also calms the itch of stinging nettles and insect bites. The sap of jewelweed may also have antifungal properties.
You can simply harvest and crush a handful of leaves fresh as needed, or brew the leaves into a poultice tea. If you have a serious and widespread case of the miseries, you might try bathing in a tub with jewelweed tincture or tea. The leaves can be used fresh or frozen, but appear to lose their efficacy if dried. There are some traditional uses of jewelweed as a diuretic, but this “water pill” effect can interact with other medications. Do not ingest jewelweed without consulting with your doctor.
If you aren’t fortunate enough to live in a bog and to have the luxury of naturally propagating jewelweed, you can purchase seeds from Amazon as well as a selection of jewelweed-infused salves and soaps. But the hummingbirds will be disappointed if you don’t plant jewelweed.