Herb to Know: Jewelweed

"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 Plants

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.

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