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jewelweed: the ‘weed’ that’s a wildlife gem

Wikipedia jewelweed flowers CC BY-SA 2.5 licenseHUMMINGBIRDS, BUTTERFLIES, game birds, moths, science-focused humans and even mice agree (in case you care what mice think): Jewelweed, meaning a couple of native species of Impatiens, is a good thing. Yes, we gardeners may decide to hand-pull it from flowerbeds and shrub borders that can’t accommodate an extra resident, as it can otherwise self-sow in big stands, but in looser areas it’s more than welcome, I think–and nature agrees. Jewelweed season, here we come.

A recent interview with ethnobotanist and author Mike Balick of the New York Botanical Garden got me thinking about jewelweed—and then a shady front-yard bed under an old Eastern red cedar did, when the “weed” grew overnight from almost-unnoticeable volunteers to nearly knee-high (below) in the first spurt of steady warmth.

jewelweed impatiens capensis“Growing up in the Northeast,” said Balick, author of “Rodale’s 21st Century Herbal,” “when I’d get stung by nettles, the jewelweed (Impatiens capensis) is always growing nearby. What I do, since it’s only available for two or three months: I grind it up in the blender and put it in an ice-cube tray, and have some ice-cubed jewelweed to rub on my skin for rashes or irritations at other times.”

So there’s a reason to let some grow this year: to make an effective, natural skin preparation. Jewelweed’s other common name of touch-me-not, which sounds more like a label poison ivy, signals that if you touch the plant when the capsules of seeds are ripe, they burst forth energetically in every direction, spreading more plants-to-be around the garden. (The seeds are the part the mice and some birds enjoy, by the way.)

Jewelweed also got in my head after an interview with bumblebee expert Leif Richardson, when I learned that perhaps the most abundant large bee species in my region, the Common Eastern bumblebee, is technically named Bombus impatiens. I guess we can add bumblebees to the list of jewelweed approvers, and the Xerces Society confirms it’s of special value to bumblebees—another reason not to edit out every last bit.

The species I usually see here is Impatiens capensis (sometimes referred to as I. biflora), the spotted jewelweed or touch-me-not. Its flower are orange with splotches; it can reach 5 feet tall if the soil is good, and moist. Sometimes I’ve noticed I. pallida, too, the pale touch-me-not, less common with its yellow blooms.

Jewelweed, hardy in an astonishing Zones 2-11, is native to much of the U.S. and large parts of Canada, where it hails from moist and wet woods and other shady to partly sunny damp-to-wet spots, such as roadside ditches. The yellow one seems more inclined and able to push out into a bit more light than the orange.

It’s easy to pull, and even easier to manage, where you need to, when the seedlings with their characteristic succulent, translucent, hollow stems emerge late spring, often in thick groups, and can be edited out with the swipe of a hoe, cultivator or hand. An annual, jewelweed’s seedlings don’t have fearsome root systems like my worst perennial weeds, so this is one to edit if needed, not try to eradicate.

Some native-plant specialty nurseries even sell seed for it, and come to think of it, the bed along my roadside might be just the place. I suspect the local wildlife would approve.

(Jewelweed flower photos at top of page from Wikipedia, under Creative Commons SA 2.5 Generic license.)

  1. Robin Raley says:

    We have a small creek around the outside of our backyard lawn to the house we just moved into a year ago. While I was trying to decide what ground cover would work (moist, sun half of the day ) there the jewelweed took over and is the most beautiful ground cover I could imagine- all free and self-seeding and beautiful soft green background and in August full of sparkling little orange flowers that are covered by bees and hummers and flies and , it seems, all of nature. So through no fault of mine I now have such a lovely creek edge and make all of nature happy- if you have moist areas of your yard seriously think about a small spot of this winning plant. When it grew where I didn’t want it it’s the easiest to pull out of any plant (tiny root system) and is a great addition to a compost pile- or as those above have said you can grind it up and use as a salve for stings. (it really does work for stinging nettle I know)

  2. Tess says:

    Every summer I have enjoyed observing hummers along with their fledglings visit our creekside Jewelweed for delectable sips – Jewelweed is a hummingbird magnet!

  3. Catherine Chaparro says:

    Here in southwestern Pennsylvania, jewelweed grows lushly along the roadsides. The yellow species is more common than the orange but you find both. The deer love it and at our last house in Monroeville I would leave several plots standing in the hopes that the deer would prefer that to the Hostas. On the other hand, maybe the jewelweed just attracted more deer to our yard for breakfast.

    The good thing about jewelweed is that you can easily pull it out, cut it up and leave it on the ground for mulch if you change your mind.

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