Tuesday, July 1, 2014

The Gem That Is Jewelweed

 Alas, jewelweed (Impatiens capensis) doesn't grow here in Seattle, so I can't
photograph it for you. For images of jewelweed flowers and habitat,
watch the video at the bottom of this post. The popular bedding plant
shown above, busy lizzie (Impatiens walleriana), is one of jewelweed's sisters.
"'Wonderful,' I murmured. My own immediate plans for the goose grease involved a salve of wild sarsaparilla and bittersweet for burns and abrasions, a mentholated ointment for stuffy noses and chest congestion, and something soothing and pleasantly scented for diaper rash - perhaps a lavender infusion with the juice of crushed jewelweed leaves." 
- From THE FIERY CROSS, by Diana Gabaldon, Chapter 34
I didn't know what jewelweed was until after I posted an article here on stinging nettles. Readers wrote to tell me that the sting from the nettles could be relieved by crushing jewelweed stems and applying the "juice" to the sting. I was told that wherever you find nettles, jewelweed can be found growing nearby.

Really?

I don't claim to be an expert on native plants of the Pacific Northwest, but this was news to me. I was pretty sure I could identify every plant in my local nettle patch, but I went back to see what, if anything, I had missed. I found plenty of horsetail (Equisetum hyemale), Himalayan blackberry (Rubus armeniacus) and wild clematis (Clematis vitalba), but nothing resembling the jewelweed plant that had been described to me.

So I consulted the "bible," Arthur Kruckeberg's book, GARDENING WITH NATIVE PLANTS OF THE PACIFIC NORTHWEST. A professor of botany at the University of Washington for more than 30 years, Kruckeberg has spent his lifetime studying and cataloging the local flora. He apparently hasn't found jewelweed here, either. He makes no mention of it in his book.

By then, I was intrigued with this plant and wanted to find out more. After a little research, I discovered that jewelweed grows wild throughout the eastern part of the United States. (No wonder I couldn't find it.) Margaret Roach, a garden writer who lives and gardens in upstate New York, describes it as a good weed because it offers so many benefits to wildlife. There are many videos on YouTube describing this plant, often shot in woodland areas of the Southeast, that show how to use the plant to protect against poison ivy rashes or soothe the itch of insect bites. It's easy to see why jewelweed comes highly recommended by readers and Twitter followers.

Botanical Information

Family: Balsaminaceae
Genus: Impatiens
Species: Impatiens capensis also known as I. biflora; the yellow-flowering variety is I. pallida
Common name: Orange jewelweed, Common jewelweed, Spotted jewelweed, Spotted touch-me-not, Orange balsam

Jewelweed is native to North America. It likes moist, mostly shady areas and can be found in ditches and along stream beds. Its showy, trumpet-shaped, orange flowers are popular with pollinators like butterflies, hummingbirds and bees.

It is called JEWELweed because raindrops and dew drops cling to the leaves and look like little jewels. It has been nicknamed, "touch-me-not," because its ripe seedpods explode when touched, scattering seed everywhere. If you want to collect the seed, grasp the pod in your fist to capture the seed before it falls. Jewelweed seeds are edible, but the leaves and stems are toxic, causing vomiting and diarrhea if ingested.

Medicinal Value

Jewelweed is used to relieve skin irritations from stinging nettles, minor burns, and insect bites. It will also relieve and even prevent the rash and itching caused by poison ivy or oak.

Basic preparation is simple. If you've been stung by a nettle or an insect, grab some jewelweed, mash the stems to release the juice, and rub it on the affected area. The sooner you do this, the better the results. Many people say that if you rub jewelweed juice on exposed skin before you go near poison ivy it will keep you from getting the rash. Conveniently, in certain parts of the country, the two plants are found growing next to each other.

The beneficial qualities of jewelweed can be captured in soaps and salves, like the one Claire was planning to make for diaper rash. A "tea" can be made with it, not for drinking, but for applying topically to relieve discomfort. It is made by taking the whole plant - leaves, stems and flowers - chopping them coarsely and putting them into boiling water. When the water returns to a boil, lower heat, cover and simmer for 20 minutes. Cool, pour into a glass jar, put a lid on it and store in the refrigerator. When needed, wet a cloth with the tea and wipe it over the affected area.

If jewelweed doesn't grow where you live, you can still find it (sort of), at your local drugstore. According to Wildman Steve Brill, "jewelweed contains methoxy-1, four napthoquinine, an anti-inflamatory and fungicide that's the active ingredient in Preparation H." So there you have it - jewelweed is a remedy for the ages, soothing diaper rash in the 18th century and hemorrhoids in the 21st.

The video below is my favorite of the many I watched while doing research for this post. It shows you how to identify jewelweed,  harvest it, and make a soap to use when your skin is irritated. If you are lucky enough to have jewelweed growing near you, you might want to give this a try.



Related Post

Stinging Nettles

3 comments:

  1. One of DG's named sources, Laura C. Martin's Wildflower Folklore, states that dock is often found growing near stinging nettle and is used to soothe irritated skin.

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  2. Also, looked up jewelweed in Martin's Wildflower Folklore and it states that American Indians used the juice contained in its flower to treat poison ivy and other skin ailments.

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  3. Thanks for your comments, Susan G. I have heard that dock has been used to soothe skin irritation. I remember seeing it growing along roadsides when I lived in the Midwest.

    And I imagine that early colonists in the US learned to use jewelweed (and many other useful plants) from Native Americans.

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