Jewels in the ditches – Jewelweed

A jewel of a plant blooms from mid-July until frost in wet, shady places like ditches and along creeks.  This is jewelweed, also called spotted touch-me-not. 

            Jewelweed’s bright orange tubular flowers speckled with dark orange spots have large open mouths with a generous supply of nectar.  They are constructed perfectly for hummingbirds and butterflies. 

            It is an upright plant that can grow from three to five feet tall depending on soil, moisture and light conditions.  It isn’t picky about soil type, but really needs consistently moist soil.  That’s why this has been an excellent year for jewelweed; with all the rain, many ditches and low areas held water all summer.

The Latin name is Impatiens capensis.   You’ll recognize the first part of its name and see the similarities to the impatiens bedding plants sold by the thousands in garden centers. 

            Bedding impatiens and jewelweed plants share the same translucent stems with swollen node.  Inside the stems you’ll find the same slippery, kind of slimy juice.  The mucilaginous juice in jewelweed, however, has a couple uses.  Jewelweed often grows beside stinging nettle and poison ivy and the stem juice is said to soothe the sting and calm the itch.  The juice also has a fungicidal quality which has been shown to be an effective treatment for athlete’s foot.

            Folk remedies for jewelweed include using a poultice of the leaves for bruises, burns, cuts, eczema, insect bites, sores, sprains, warts and ringworm.  Some of these make sense as they are similar to problems you might use aloe vera, a plant with a similar mucilaginous juice, to treat.

            Once you see the plant you might think the “jewel” part of the common name refers to its beautiful orange inch-long flowers, but it actually comes from the way rain drops bead up on the leaves to look like little sparkly jewels. 

            The other common name, spotted touch-me-not, isn’t meant as a warning not to touch.  It refers to the habit of the long, thin, ripe seedpods exploding and shooting seeds in all directions when touched.  Don’t worry – you won’t get hurt; you’ll just help the jewelweed spread. 

            Jewelweed is native to most of the United States and Canada.  The second part of its Latin name, capensis, means “of the cape” and refers to the Cape of Good Hope in southern Africa.  It is actually a misnomer, as the Dutch botanist, Nicolaas Meerburgh, who named the plant in the 18th century, was under the mistaken impression that the plant was a native of that area.

            There is yet another jewel to be found in a jewelweed plant.  When you scrape the dark brown covering off of the ripe seed, you’ll find a sky blue seed inside.

            There is a similar jewelweed, called pale touch-me-not, with yellow flowers.  This less common plant also grows in Wisconsin in the same moist, shady conditions as the spotted version and can grow even taller – up to 8 feet!

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