Blow your horn for the trumpet-shaped flowers of jewelweed!
These pretty petals do more than just beautify the wet woodlands. Along with the flower’s stem and leaves, this plant can irk the itch and stop the scratching. It is perhaps one of the most practical prescriptions from nature to relieve skin conditions of all types.
Poison ivy beware and stinging nettles take care. Simply crush this plant and rub its juice on areas affected by poison ivy, poison oak, or stinging nettles to relieve the irritation. Even fresh mosquito bites can be calmed through this method, and word has it that jewelweed is also a cure for bruises, eczema, warts; even athlete’s foot.
But first you need to obtain it. Find it near a stream or pond in your neighborhood. Mill and Parsonage Ponds and the creek below Scotsman’s Bridge are Island locations where these gems grow.
Beyond the epidermis, jewelweed has a wealth of additional qualities for the botanist, poet and etymologist. It was just beyond the reach of Henry David Thoreau who wrote of jewelweed, “Impatiens, noli-me-tangere, or touch-me-not, with its dangling yellow pitchers or horns of plenty which I have seen for a month by damp causeway thickets, but the whole plant was so tender and drooped so soon I could not get it home.”
A plant by many other names would still not smell as sweet. Jewelweed has no fragrance, but many aliases. The names horns of plenty, kicking horse, touch-me-not, Jack-jump-up-and-kiss-me, snapweed, ear jewel, fire plant, silverweed are all intriguing.
Silverweed speaks to a chameleon-like trait of this plant. Submerge a leaf in water and much to your surprise, the undersides will turn silver. Even more absorbing is the fact that it comes out of the bath dry. Jewelweed is waterproof, having hairs on the leaves that trap air and repel moisture. Beads of water appear as jewels on the leaves.
The plant’s other names refer to its explosive nature. Jewelweed has two types of flowers, one of which you won’t see. Tiny, petal-less cleistogamous flowers (which don’t open, but self pollinate) produce seeds with speed. Distance, too, if you consider that once released, the seeds go ballistic and can shoot several feet in all directions. These superseeds burst from their slipper-shaped pods with an audible snap. This is a smart move that keeps this plant propagating — there can be over 1,000 plants per square meter in a healthy jewelweed cluster.
The seeds and bugle-shaped flowers can appear simultaneously, good for human and beast alike. Hummingbirds and long-tongued bees will lap up the nectar from the cavernous orange flowers. Other ingenuous insects will go to the back door, so to speak, by making a hole in the spur of the flower to get the nectar without touching the pollen.
In 1789, Erasmus Darwin, grandfather of Charles and naturalist in his own right, observed jewelweed and its exploding nature:
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.
Suzan Bellincampi is director of the Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary in Edgartown.