"With fierce distracted eye Impatiens stands, swells her pale cheeks and brandishes her hands, With rage and hate the astonished groves alarms And hurls her infants from her frantic arms." —Erasmus Darwin
One bright summer morning, as I was walking in deep woods along the Cuyahoga River in northeastern Ohio, I turned a corner and was greeted by a tremendous light show: the light reflected from water droplets on the leaves of a patch of pale jewelweed (Impatiens pallida). The only other plant I know of in the United States that is capable of putting on such a show is the spotted jewelweed (I. capensis, sometimes offered as I. biflora), and it’s easy to see how the plant inspired its common name.
Those who spend much time hiking in the woods or by streams and ponds in the eastern United States have probably seen this magnificent display, perhaps without realizing what it was. Droplets of water bead up on the leaves, giving the appearance of tiny jewels. (Some foragers even collect the droplets as emergency drinking water.) And in the fall, those same hikers likely have stumbled onto a Lilliputian battlefield, in which exploding jewelweed seedpods violently catapult their contents onto unsuspecting passersby. These explosions are characteristic of the entire genus and have earned it the names touch-me-not and snapweed.
If you enjoy walking or working outside, you’ve undoubtedly also encountered the annoyance of insect bites, nettle stings, or poison ivy. It may come as a pleasant surprise to learn that the modest jewelweeds have a well-deserved reputation as an effective treatment for these and other skin irritations. They are definitely plants worth knowing.
The jewelweeds belong to the Balsaminaceae, a family of some 500 members, most of them native to the tropics and subtropics of Asia and Africa. The genus Impatiens includes the annual garden balsam (I. balsamina) from Asia as well as the tender perennial that everyone thinks of as “impatiens”, I. wallerana, from North Africa. Though these garden ornamentals are said to possess the same itch-curing properties as the pale and spotted jewelweeds, I have not found this to be true.
Jewelweeds can be identified easily by their smooth, glassy, water-filled stems that are swollen at the nodes, and their hairless, dull, egg-shaped leaves with widely serrated edges. When the leaves are held under water, their lower surfaces appear silvery, which has inspired the common name silverleaf. The swollen nodes seem to be reservoirs for the watery juice, the part of the plant used against itches. By late summer, jewelweed stems have become opaque, thin, and brittle, and the juice is scanty but still usable.
It would be difficult to confuse the jewelweeds with any other wild plant in their range. Only clearweed (Pilea pumila) has a similar translucent, succulent stem, but it lacks the swollen nodes, and its leaves are shiny and sharply toothed with deeply sculpted veins.
The small, showy flowers of both jewelweed species have long, nectar-filled spurs. Flowers of spotted jewelweed are orange with spotted throats and are usually borne in twos; those of pale jewelweed are pale yellow, one per flower stalk. The nineteenth-century ornithologist Alexander Wilson reported the pale jewelweed to be a favorite of hummingbirds.
Both species are found from Newfoundland to Saskatchewan and south to South Carolina, Alabama, and Oklahoma. Pale jewelweed prefers shady spots in deep, moist woods; spotted jewelweed tolerates more light and is found in both shady and sunny locations along ponds, brooks, and roadsides and in damp meadows. Here in Ohio, seedlings emerge in early June, and the plant remains green until frost.
Jewelweed is arguably the best natural remedy for poison ivy, and especially in the Midwest and South, poison ivy and jewelweed grow in similar habitats and often are found together. The Potawatomi and tribes of the Appalachian area used jewelweed to prevent reactions to poison ivy and to treat any sores that developed. Some Native Americans apparently believed that drinking a cup of tea made from mature jewelweed plants in late August or early September would protect them against poison ivy for the following year. Early American settlers learned about jewelweed from the Native Americans, using the juice to treat various itches including those of athlete’s foot and dandruff, now known to be fungal in origin. In New Englands Rarities Discovered (1672), John Josselyn reported that the colonists considered jewelweed a “sovereign remedy for bruises of what kind soever.” Jewelweed’s reputation in treating a wide variety of external ills has landed it in many herbals and folk remedy books as well as in some commercial poison-ivy preparations.
Besides having a foul taste, jewelweed tea is emetic, cathartic, and diuretic, which could be dangerous for some people. The plant is safest and most effective when used as an external wash, poultice, or salve.
Perhaps because of the risk involved in taking jewelweed internally, the last mention of the herb in The U.S. Dispensatory was in the 24th edition (Lippincott, 1947), in which it was stated to be “efficacious in the treatment of Rhus [poison ivy and poison oak] poisoning.” The 21st edition (Lippincott, 1926) mentions the experience of practitioners in Philadelphia in treating hemorrhoids with an ointment made by boiling fresh jewelweed in lard. Potter’s New Cyclopedia of Medicinal Herbs and Preparations (Harper and Row, 1972) mentions this use and reports the herb’s reputed effectiveness as a topical treatment for warts and corns. A study at the University of Vermont about 1950 showed jewelweed to have potent antifungal properties, confirming its use as a treatment for athlete’s foot, ringworm, and dandruff.
Jewelweed’s effectiveness against poison ivy is supported by clinical trials, although the cure is not guaranteed. In 1957, R. A. Lipton found that complete cures from poison ivy were effected in 108 of 115 people treated with jewelweed extract.
The most common way to use jewelweed as a poison ivy treatment is to break off a stem, crush it, and rub the juice on the affected area. Another common method is to make an extract as follows: fill a six-quart pot full of jewelweed stems and leaves, cover them with water, boil the water down to half its original volume, then strain out the plant material. The brownish-orange extract maintains its potency for less than two weeks under refrigeration; frozen into ice cubes, it can be stored indefinitely. The cubes can be rubbed directly on poison ivy eruptions or insect bites or stings, and the cold gives additional relief. (Always use a water rather than an alcohol extract of jewelweed; the latter occasionally has been reported to cause adverse reactions.)
Topical application of jewelweed juice or extract not only cures the discomfort of ivy poisoning; it also protects against the reaction if you rub it on before venturing into poison ivy habitat. You may also wish to rub jewelweed juice on the handles of tools that have been used in areas where poison ivy grows.
My own experience has confirmed the numerous claims that jewelweed juice is effective against the discomfort of stinging nettles, bee stings, and mosquito bites. An encounter between my lawn mower and a huge nest of yellowjackets gave me an opportunity to test it on yellowjacket stings as well. Rubbing jewelweed ice cubes on the stings almost instantly relieved the pain and swelling, but the effect was only temporary. However, whenever the pain returned, I reapplied the jewelweed, and I felt no more than ten minutes’ discomfort altogether in the three days before I felt I was cured.
The edibility of jewelweed has been the subject of considerable controversy. Raw, the plant is rather acrid, and no animals other than goats will eat it. Boiled in two changes of water, it is bland and the nutrients are probably pretty much gone, so I see no reason to use it as a potherb, although Euell Gibbons liked it a lot. Those interested in trying it can follow these guidelines:
If you eat shoots longer than 6 inches, you risk vomiting and diarrhea. Young shoots up to about 2 inches long can be eaten raw, and shoots from 4 to 6 inches long, cut into bite-sized pieces, may be eaten if cooked in two to three waters for 10 to 15 minutes each. (The first cooking water can be frozen into cubes as a first-aid treatment.) Season the shoots with butter, salt, pepper, and perhaps a bit of vinegar. The cooked shoots can also be served like asparagus or poke in a cream sauce on toast for a light spring supper.
Pharmacist and herbalist Ben Charles Harris warns that jewelweed is extremely rich in minerals and may cause temporary digestive problems if a large quantity is eaten at one sitting. He advises that the herb be combined with other foods to which the body is more accustomed.
Jewelweed seeds, on the other hand, are eminently edible and have the flavor of English walnuts without the expense or the work (they have no hulls to speak of). You can collect them easily by putting a bag over the seed pods and then bumping them, exploding the seeds into the bag. Use the seeds as you would walnuts to flavor cookies, bread, ice cream, and puddings. Collecting the seeds is a fun activity to share with kids.
If your garden includes a shady, moist area, you may wish to establish your own bed of jewelweed. If you can’t find wild plants from which to collect the seed, check the sources listed at the end of this article. Sow seed early in spring and maintain at a temperature above 60°F; plant out into the garden after all danger of frost is past. Established plants obviously self-sow, though you never know where seedlings may appear. Move seedlings soon after they emerge.
If you don’t have jewelweed in your garden but live in its natural range, be on the lookout next time you go hiking. Watch for the transparent, water-engorged stems and the small yellow to orange spurred flowers, and map the location so that you can return to it for your yearly supply. There is no reason for even a day of suffering from ivy poisoning, insect bite, or several other minor discomforts when jewelweed is nearby.
• Country Wetlands Nursery, Dept. HC, S. 75 West 20755 Field Dr., Muskego, WI 53150. Catalog $2.
• Hurov’s Tropical Seeds, Dept. HC, PO Box 1596, Chula Vista, CA 91912. Catalog $1.
Peter Gail is a plant ecologist and herbalist who operates Goosefoot Acres Center for Wild Vegetable Research and Education in Cleveland, Ohio. He writes a regular column on wild plants in The Business of Herbs and has published several books on the uses of backyard weeds.