Jewelweed

August in Appalachia bears witness to wildflowers of incomparable beauty. The summer sun fires the blues, reds, and yellows to an intensity that almost singes the eye. Color seems to attract color as ruby-throated hummingbirds, goldfinches, and myriad colorful butterflies are drawn as surely to the flowers as lips to a kiss. Among these floral gems is the common jewelweed whose orange flowers gleam in the sunlight like dangling earrings.

            Jewelweed, also known as touch-me-not, may be named after those beautiful flowers. They hang like pendant orange gems among the silky green leaves. Each flower resembles a tiny pouch, or cornucopia, whose open mouth narrows into a long, slender nectary that coils under the blossom. Only pollinators with long and flexible tongues can reach the nectar lodged deep in the interior, and hummingbirds are one of the most frequent visitors. Sphinx moths and some large butterflies also visit the flowers.

            Another reason for the name jewelweed may relate to the seeds of the plant. The seed itself is ordinary, greenish or brownish, depending on ripeness. However, if the seed is carefully peeled, a Carolina-blue gem appears, as a tiny sapphire might slide out of a velvet bag. Perhaps it is the seed, not just the flower, that is the jewel.

I love the juxtaposition of jewel with weed, but the plants themselves really are weedy. They get to be tall, four feet or so in height, and lanky, taking up a lot of space wherever they grow. And they grow anywhere there is moisture, or a little shade from intense sun as long as there is a seed source.            In damp areas around ponds, in ditches along shady roadsides, their orange jewels of flowers wink among the rambling plants. Once jewelweed is established, it tends to invade any suitable habitat, which seems to be every flower bed around my home.

            Iím happy to have a few plants around, however, for they are an excellent remedy for poison ivy exposure in addition to their own loveliness and attractiveness to hummingbirds. The plants are succulent, with thick, juicy stems. If you are exposed to poison ivy, the sap works well as an immediate antidote, rubbed on the affected area. The juicy sap is also as soothing as aloe to a case of poison ivy already in the itchy stage. It even works well on sunburn and bug bites.

            Touch-me-not as a common name is derived from the way the seeds are released from the plant. As an annual, the plants must set seeds every year to ensure continuation of the species. They guarantee that the seeds are spread over a distance by a startling mechanism. Once the seed pods are ripe, they explode when caressed by the lightest touch of finger or feather, and the seeds are thrown up to several feet from the plant. These seeds are easy to collect and plant, and once youíve established a few of them, the plants will appear everywhere. I generally leave them to fend for themselves around the mulched bases of trees in my yard, where the trout lilies emerge in spring and are gone by the time the jewelweed have sprouted.

            Jewelweed plays a final card in its fantastic ability to set seeds. Some of the flowers are self-fertile, automatically setting seeds whether or not a pollinator visits. Pollinators seem to be common, ensuring that many of the flowers are cross-pollinated, but just in case pollinators are lacking or maybe as a mechanism to keep a successful set of genes intact, some of the flowers never open. The plant fertilizes some of its own seed.

            The scientific genus of jewelweed is Impatiens. This is a scientific name that most of you already know. The cultivated cousin of jewelweed, impatiens (or impatients, as my mother always refers to them), are delicate, pretty flowers of spring and fall. Like their wild relatives, cultivated impatiens need plenty of water and protection from intense summer heat and sun. Unlike the wild varieties, cultivated impatiens are small and come in several colors including pink and white.

Jewelweed at low elevation is all one type, with orange spotted flowers. However, at higher elevations along the Parkway, a second species is more common. It has yellow flowers. Sections of the roadside between the 276 and 215 entrances of the Parkway are covered in masses of the yellow flowers, and many sections of the roadsides along 215 and 276 on the routes up to the parkway are filled with the common orange gems. Enjoy those weeds!

           

The two species of jewelweed, Impatiens capensis and I. pallida.

 

copyright 2002 by Jennifer E. Frick

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