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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. Patti says:

    When I was a young girl-scout we used to make whistle’s out of this at camp. We called it “Whistleweed.” After a while we learned that it was called Jewelweed and we would rub the sap on our bites or spots of poison ivy.
    I wanted to add this to my mother’s day salve but the tincture (water based) would combine with the oils. I’ve noticed that some people use the sap in salve. I’ll have to head out to the creak areas to find some now that they are growing again.

    1. margaret says:

      Hilarious, Patti. Whistleweed. Could go with the “whistlepig,” which is another name for woodchuck or groundhog!

  2. I don’t have a place for jewelweed, but I do keep a small clump of milkweed for monarchs and a small stand of poke for a homesick southern friend. Some of my garden weeds go into the salad bowl. I think “weeds” should be evaluated according to their utility as well as their bad behavior.

  3. Linda Turner says:

    LOVE Jewelweed! As kids, we would touch them on purpose to watch the seeds fly. I do remember rolling leaves across my arm if I came near poison ivy and have soap made from it-you have to use it immediately after exposure. Never seen the yellow though. Mike Balick’s reference to nettle…haven’t seen any of that since I was a child (perhaps thankfully, remembering the intense burning itch it doles out…..) Red Admiral butterflies use it as a larval plant. It used to grow with abandon on old manure piles at the farm next door

    1. margaret says:

      Well, then maybe you can tell visitors that you have an eco-lawn, ccp56. :) I take it your “lawn” is semi-shady or shady.

  4. Kathy Sturr of the Violet Fern says:

    I need to thin the Jewelweed that I let grow … I had to “explode” some of those seed pods – just way too much fun! But I should have heed the name “touch me not.” It IS easy to pull but boy, does it fill in fast! I let it grow in my garden for the hummingbirds – they never fail to stop at a bloom for a sip. Also, the juice from the stems is a great remedy for poison ivy (which I don’t intentionally “let grow” but you never know – I have some really wild areas this year), but come to think of it, it would soothe most rashes as you have mentioned. The ice cube approach is genius. I love this little “jewel” of a native and am so glad you have shared it with your thousands of fans!

  5. devra says:

    margaret, thanks for this great note. i feel really inspired now to re-think my weed-pulling on the jewelweed front. i’ve been told it’s also a wonderful tonic for poison ivy. may need to set aside an area for jewelweed redistribution!

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Jenny. I have heard it said also that because water beads up on the leaves after a rain and looks like a jewel — hence the name (and also that the undersides of the leaves look like silver under water — you say gold … so now I will have to try it!).

  6. I too have intentionally planted milkweed and other plants in different parts of my landscape to create a better eco balance. It is difficult, because I have a real thing about letting weeds grow in my garden…Your photos are gorgeous and it does make you think.

  7. Andy Yosolph says:

    I encountered jewelweeds years ago when we were camping. My wife had insect bites and we forgot to bring some ointments when packing. Luckily, our camp guide knew about jewelweeds. He just minced the leaves with his pocket knife and then applied it on my wife’s skin. After a few minutes, it lessened the itchiness.

  8. SAJ says:

    I’ve let this take over a few formerly manicured beds. It’s always lush, and I love the little slipper blooms moving in the wind.

  9. Carole says:

    I often have to water areas that have my Jewel Weed..the Humming birds love it so,plus as you say many others.Enjoying all I hear from you..so happy I found the book you wrote,ans followed you here. Thank you for all the wonderful advice ,etc…

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Carole. Nice of you to say hello! Yes, the jewelweed love the moist, doesn’t it? So glad you found me, too; thank you for the kind words of encouragement.

  10. Tom says:

    If you pinch them back they develop much sturdier stems and very full heads; wish I had pictures of the ones I grew many years ago. After the un-pinched plants got beaten down in a thunderstorm I tried to salvage what I could by pruning them back and they recovered better than I could have expected. They can make a nice accent plant this way.

  11. Peg Lotvin says:

    My chickens love Jewelweed, especially the seeds. When they are ripe the chickies jump up and trigger the seeds to explode. Then they hunt down the seeds and gobble them up. So I don’t have as much Jewelweed as previously. There always a few seeds they miss and those grow up in out-of-the-way places. I love Jewelweed as an itch reliever for poison ivy. I do the ice cube trick and always have some ready in the summer.

  12. Diane Gernetzke says:

    I love the arrival of Jewelweed! I live in the north woods in Wisconsin and it grows like crazy up here in the marshy areas by the lake and even in the woods and along the roadside~it’s everywhere and and the hummers LOVE it as much as I do! I also think it has a beautiful flower that reminds me of a snapdragon! Thanks for all the tips about the itch reliever! Did not know that and will pass it on to my sister who is always coming in contact with poison ivy:{

    1. margaret says:

      It’s a traditional remedy for poison ivy, Diane, so I’m glad to pass it along. The naturalist Wildman Steve Brill, who has led foraging walks in Central Park in NYC for decades, suggests rubbing it on the skin if you come in contact with PI, before the rash develops, and explains a Native American tactic for using it, too (click to this page on his website and scroll way down).

  13. Loren Bolo says:

    Placing a jewelweed flower in the ice cube tray along with salve from the stem will not only be pretty, but serve as an identifier if you forget later what it is in the tray.

  14. Dixie Lee Foster says:

    using the ice cube trays ….blend it up in the blender ….pour it in and freeze…. on ivy rash the cold helps as well. Ask me how I know that ….

    If you smash it up and wipe your skin where you think you may have been exposed to ivy ..if you do it soon after exposure…you will not get it at all….in the first place .but it has to be within a few hours .It removes the oil or neutralizes it on your skin.
    next morning is too late.

  15. I’m a tender gardener, meaning I don’t have the heart to pull most things out of the earth…so things get messy fast. However, that has meant the discovery of so many wonderful plants and trees on our property such as grapes, black raspberries, mulberry trees and of course jewelweeds. Long story short, they have spread into almost every nook and cranny including several of my gardens and even under trees in gorgeous waves which hubby mows around to look like fabulous ground cover which of course gets taller like masses of shrubs as the season progresses. When the bloom every little furred and winged critter seems to absolutely LOVE it!!! I encourage everyone to reserve a spot for these amazing plants! I wish you had an area to post pics which I’d love to share. ;o)

  16. Chris Nicholson says:

    When we were visiting in the Soviet Union (Serpukhov) back in Sept. 1988 we were
    there for fall “Volunteer” Clean Up Day. Some military folks were “volunteering” in a local
    wild park area. They were clearing out Jewel Weed. It was bushy but not woody and was
    about 6-8 feet tall with larger red-violet blooms. Since we were under restrictions about leaving certain areas and socializing with locals I restrained myself from collecting seeds.

    I’m sure impatiens is a world wide plant.

    1. Lavacha says:

      That is the Asian species, Impatiens glandulifera or Himalayan balsam, pretty invasive all over Europe and the species the garden varieties of impatiens are related to.
      I still love it and always have a patch of it combined with stinging nettles and thistles. I ‘machete’ down the plants in November and leave the debris till spring, because some European butterflies overwinter in it (adults or eggs).

  17. As much as I’d like to tidy up the far side of my yard (i.e.. it’s overrun with jewelweed) I’ve seen the hummingbirds go from flower to flower, so I leave it. Also, as far as weeds go, it’s pretty and easy enough to weed when one has to.

  18. Bethanny Parker says:

    Jewelweed is supposed to be good for poison ivy too. I have some poison ivy in my back lot that I have been trying to get rid of for years and I manage to get poison ivy at least a couple of times per year, so I’ve been wanting to try the Jewelweed. But so far, the only patch I’ve found I can’t get to without trespassing.

    1. Robin Raley says:

      I have heard that people nowadays in certain places where they are can “hire” a herd of goats for however long it takes to eat poison ivy which doesn’t hurt the goats and which they seem to love to eat. I’d look it up if I were you and see if all I just said is true.

  19. Jacquelyn H-M says:

    I have gathered Jewelweed seeds and scattered them in my Hosta bed. I am doing all I can to increase the inventory of native plants in my garden. Interestingly, the largest stand of Jewelweed in my area is on a sunny slope (it’s a utility cut) in an otherwise shady woodland. I guess water runs down this slope to the creek, but it seems like an unlikely location for this moisture-loving plant. I know it will spread vigorously, but I’m prepared to manage it for its beauty and utility for the ecosystem. When I have enough to cull, I may try making a salve!

  20. Cindy says:

    You can put the flower in vinegar or even the sap. Makes an especially nice vinegar compress. Rub a tablespoon or more of unguent on your face and neck. Press a warm to hot moist washcloth with as much vinegar as you choose. The vinegar eats away at skin tags slowly. People added it chopped to egg white and used it to draw.

    Saw a white flowered one in a degraded part of a metro park. Near railroad tracks with an oooold stonebridge, formerly a road. was years ago. Tohard to get to, since i gave up my car. Never checked for an old cemetery. It was between railroad tracks and a large stream.

    1. margaret says:

      Any plant will be better than no plant, but I don’t think jewelweed has the root system to offer maximum bank-holding effect compared to a perennial (whether herbaceous or a vine or shrub), for instance.

    2. Robin Raley says:

      I have planted boking 14 comfrey along our creek edge to hold the soil. All comfrey isn’t created equal and some types are invasive (hot south) in some places. The boking 14 is not invasive (check to make sure it isn’t where you live) and will not self-sow. It is a great addition to the compost pile and under plants you want to fertilize and has roots that go down at least 10′ and pull up nutrients along the way. That’s what make the decaying leaves so healthy. You just cut the leaves back- several times a year and they grow back quickly. It grows inn our sunny moist creek edge like a weed and is pretty unless it’s just been cut back. Huge furry green leaves. Look it up and see if it fills the bill.

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