Jewels in the Weeds
To tinker with a line from a terrific baseball movie, “If you ignore them, they will spread.” I mean the spotted jewelweed that has taken over a cool, shady spot below the precariously leaning apple tree in our front yard. It has been a couple of summers since the plants, which grow five feet tall or more and are mostly foliage, have been yanked up. That’s a temporary reprieve, since jewelweed produces so many seeds that it will quickly pop back the next year. Moreover, butterflies and hummingbirds love the nectar from the scattered, oddly shaped flowers while bees collect the pollen. Yet if left alone, jewelweed quickly crowds out my exotic daylilies. Decisions, decisions.
The jewels in my opinion are the showy, inch-long flowers that nod from thin, threadlike stems. Bell-shaped with a spur at the end, these fragile blossoms consist of golden-orange sepals that are profusely mottled with red spots. Pale jewelweed, a less common relative, has pastel yellow flowers with very few spots. Jewelweed is particularly attractive in early morning when the large, bluish-green leaves sparkle with dew, and some sources claim these are the jewels that gave the plant its name. Both species are also known as touch-me-nots for they produce a swollen fruit capsule that literally explodes at the lightest tap, scattering its tiny seeds far and wide.
Though it looks like an escaped jungle plant, jewelweed is a North American native that is found in wet woods and meadows from coast to coast except for Wyoming, Montana and the Southwest states. It belongs to the Impatiens genus, which includes some colorful if not especially attractive ornamental flowers. Jewelweed has frail, succulent stems that, when broken, ooze juice that is said to relieve the itch and irritation associated with exposure to poison ivy and poison oak. Search sources on botany or herbal medicine and you’ll find articles that say it works and others that say it doesn’t. Probably best to follow that that old saying, “Leaves of three let it be.” Now, if you have a wild garden with no jewelweed to admire, seeds (two thousand to the ounce!) and small plants are available commercially. But keep in mind that the species will spread and is hard to eradicate. Perhaps if you’re patient, birds will introduce it for you.