Jewelweed: a natural remedy for poison ivy, stinging nettles

In days of old — you know, back when I was a kid — learning about the magical plant called touch-me-not was something that happened with country kids at an early age. It was just part of my hunting, fishing, camping, and hiking upbringing.

The parent, or maybe an aunt, uncle or grandparent doing the introduction, would ask the child to touch one of the plant’s half-inch-long seed pods. The child would hesitantly touch the tiny bean-like pod and it would burst, shooting its seeds in all directions. What usually followed was a curious child eagerly searching for more pods to touch — so much for the plant’s name.

While the plant’s moniker “touch-me-not” comes from its pods that explode when touched, the origin of its other common name, “jewelweed,” is less clear. The name most likely came from the observation that water droplets bead up on the leaves like jewels or from the fact that, if you hold a leaf under water, it looks silvery or jeweled. Yet another source, John Hilty, mentions that the name comes from the fact that “their attractive orange flowers glisten in the sunlight.”

Jewelweed is found all across Canada and in all but a few of the arid western states. It only grows in semi-shaded wet areas, therefore the annual plants sometimes struggle during a drought.

Aside from being a pretty but common wildflower, jewelweed — particularly spotted jewelweed — has an important medical use. Rub up against stinging nettles — jewelweed to the rescue.

Native Americans used its sap to treat various skin rashes. If you crush the hollow stem and rub the sticky, clear sap on your skin, it quickly takes away the itch from poison ivy blisters or the burning sensation caused by stinging nettles.

The sap from jewelweed can also be used to ease the itch caused by athlete’s foot. According to information found on the University of Texas Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center website, “scientific data confirm (jewelweed’s) fungicidal qualities.”

I have used jewelweed sap to treat both poison ivy and stinging nettles. In each case, jewelweed sap provided very quick relief. Corticosteroid creams are sold for the same purpose, but the sap from jewelweed is an excellent natural substitute.

An article in the August 2012 issue of the Journal of Ethnopharmacology supported that a mash made from jewelweed stems and leaves was successful at reducing the rash caused by poison ivy. That study did not address its anti-itch properties.

The scientific name of touch-me-not or spotted jewelweed, Impatiens capensis, provides a hint as to this plant’s domesticated relatives — the ornamental impatiens found at garden centers. Another species of wild jewelweed, the yellow-flowered pale jewelweed (Impatiens pallida), also grows across North America, but is not as common.

Both spotted and pale jewelweed are native plants. By the end of summer, they grow three to five feet tall, often in dense stands. The plants have both opposite and alternate branching and leaves. The plant’s stem is somewhat translucent, hollow and succulent. It is easily crushed. Larger stems are sometimes marked with enlarged bulb-like nodes. Light green or red roots are often visible growing into the ground from the bottom of the stem.

The plant blooms from late July until the first hard frost. They are blooming now. The inch-long cone-shaped flowers of spotted jewelweed are red-orange with darker spots. They sport three showy, pollinator-attracting lips at the entrance to the “cone.” From a side view, the flowers are seen to be hanging balanced from a tiny stem. The flowers of pale jewelweed are the same shape and size, but light yellow in color, with tiny spots.

I have patches of both spotted and pale jewelweed growing near my house, and they are a regular haven for hummingbirds. Because of the depth and angle of the flowers and their nectar-bearing spur, hummingbirds, bees and sometimes swallowtail butterflies are the main pollinators. Most flowers are successfully pollinated and later produce seeds.

All native plants, including jewelweed, are a part of the natural web of life. Aside from the plant’s importance to hummingbirds and bees, white-tailed deer browse on the foliage; mice, ruffed grouse, pheasants and some songbirds eat the seeds. The plant is also a host to several species of moth larvae.

Now would be a perfect time to acquaint yourself with this native medicinal wildflower. The knowledge could come in handy someday. Note: Most people do not have an allergy to touch-me-not, but you might. Be sure to test a small area of skin prior to a large application.

Categories: Pennsylvania – Mark Nale

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