This week’s plant for #WildEdibleWednesday is Impatiens capensis, or Orange Jewelweed. At SARCRAFT, we love multitaskers of all kinds, even when it comes to plants. That’s why in our wild edibles seminars we generally focus on plants with a wide range of uses, like plantain, cattail, pine, mountain mint, etc. Jewelweed is not one of those plants. It is a consummate unitasker – its use is confined almost exclusively to external medicine – but it performs that task very, very well.
Also known as Touch-me-Not, Silverleaf, or Snapweed, Jewelweed is a member of the balsam family. It gets its name from one of two explanations, both of which I believe are equally valid… One is that since its leaves are hydrophobic, rainwater or dew beads up on them and catches the suns’ rays, reflecting them like tiny diamonds. It also may be because the bright yellow-orange spotted flowers stand out like jewels against the dark green of bottomland forests. Either way, jewelweed is one of the most beautiful and exotic-looking plants in the Eastern Woodlands. Jewelweed is an annual herbaceous plant that grows from 3’-6’ tall with about the same spread in an open, branching growth habit. Jewelweed has no deadly or toxic mimics – indeed, it really has no mimics at all. It is a very unique plant, and there’s nothing else in the woods which looks quite like it. Almost every part of the plant is distinctive. The stems are smooth and filled with water, almost like green glass. The leaf nodes swell in the spring and early summer. The leaves are ovate, 2”-4” long, with shallow serrations and a dull, non-waxy appearance. They are totally water-repellent: Besides their tendency to shed rainwater as mentioned before, the entire leaf will flash silver when submerged underwater, and be dry when you pull it out. However, the most distinguishing characteristic of jewelweed is its flowers. They look like nothing else that grows in these woods. They are reminiscent of an orchid, with long, nectar-filled spurs and orange-spotted throats. They hang suspended from the stems via a tiny flower stem that’s no bigger around than a stiff strand of hair. The flowers bloom from midsummer through early fall, and are the best way to identify jewelweed. They’re hard to miss, especially since jewelweed likes to grow in colonies of several dozen plants, all of which may have hundreds of flowers on them at their peak. The seeds are unique in their own right, as well. An inch or two long, they become spring-loaded when mature in late fall, and “snap” when touched, hurling themselves several feet. This is what gave rise to the names Snapweed and Touch-me-Not. Jewelweed is a habitat-specific plant. It requires water, and lots of it. Although it’s not a true aquatic plant, and you won’t find it growing in standing water, it won’t be far from creeks, rivers, or ponds. I find it best in the open woods of cool creek bottoms, alongside fast-flowing water. Native to the entirety of the Eastern Woodlands, you’ll find jewelweed in wet areas all over this continent except for the Rockies and the desert Southwest. It grows from the Arctic circle to the tropics, and from the coast to the plains in addition to the Pacific Northwest.
Jewelweed is a marginal wild edible. The seeds are delicious and taste similar to walnuts. They are high in protein and rich in other nutrients as well. However, they’re tiny and laborious to harvest. Since they explode when touched, you’ve got to carefully cup your hand around the seed stem and be ready to catch them. Kids love this though, so if you’re camping with children and looking for a useful distraction for them, harvesting jewelweed seeds is a good one. The flowers are edible as well, but they’re so tiny and of so little nutritional value that they’re more of a garnish. Some folks swear by eating the emergent shoots in early spring, but I can’t in good conscience advise you to. Although shoots under 3” long are safely edible, they have an acrid flavor and must be boiled at least twice to get them to taste like something you’d want to eat. By then, all the nutrients have been cooked out. Larger shoots and the mature parts of the plant aren’t deadly (unless eaten in large quantities, which you probably couldn’t do even if you tried, since it’s an emetic), but they are mildly toxic and will make you sick. Jewelweed contains a host of toxic alkaloids called saponins, as well as extremely high levels of calcium and selenium. So although you can eat jewelweed, we really don’t know why you would. There are much better wild edibles out there.
Medicinally, jewelweed really only has one application: Used externally, as a poultice or decoction. However, in this application, it’s fantastic. It’s arguably the best plant in the Eastern Woodlands for treating dermatitis of all kinds, particularly exposure to plants in the Rhus genus – Poison Ivy, Poison Oak, and Poison Sumac. It’s been used by native tribes all over North America for this purpose since time immemorial, and modern science backs it up. Here’s a link to the abstract of a peer-reviewed article in the Journal of Ethnopharmacology about jewelweed as an effective poison ivy treatment: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22766473. Exactly how jewelweed works isn’t known for sure, but it’s theorized that the saponins contained within its juice act as a surfactant and break down the toxic urushiol oils in poison ivy, oak, and sumac. There are several ways to take advantage of this benefit. The best is as a poultice or mash, applied to the affected area at least three times per day. Some claim that you can rub a handful of crushed leaves on yourself before entering an area with poison ivy, and it’ll prevent you from getting it. Seems kind of far-fetched, but the evidence backs it up. That same handful of crushed leaves works great as an emergency treatment when you know you’ve been exposed – rub it on the affected area and it’ll almost completely prevent a skin reaction. In addition to poison ivy, Jewelweed is useful for treating almost any other form of dermatitis. Most notably, it’s a great treatment for fungal infections of the skin such as ringworm, athlete’s foot, and jock itch. In a wilderness survival situation, especially a long-term one, this benefit can’t be underestimated. A fungal condition that might be an annoying inconvenience in civilization can be debilitating in the backcountry. The same benefits can be had in a more shelf-stable form by boiling down the plant into a decoction or making it into a salve. This decoction can be used as a wash to treat the same conditions as the poultice. It’ll last up to two weeks in the refrigerator, but one article I read had a really great idea: Freeze the decoction in ice cube trays for medicinal ice cubes. The cold will help reduce inflammation, and the jewelweed decoction will treat the skin condition. They’ll also keep indefinitely, so if you’re like me and have limited access to jewelweed, this is a great way to keep it in your apothecary year-round. The salve is an effective treatment for fungal skin infections as well, but it’s also great for another unpleasant malady – hemorrhoids. Jewelweed contains 2-methoxy-1, 4-napthoquinine, which is the active ingredient in Preparation H. Jewelweed can also be made into a soap, but these are less effective than the aforementioned methods, although some folks swear by them.
A word on using jewelweed for internal medicine: Don’t. Some folks use an infusion of it for an emetic and diuretic, but it’s unreliable and tough to get the dosage right without making yourself seriously sick. Much like eating it, there are far better plants for this purpose.
So there you have it. Jewelweed is a unique and valuable plant, and a great example of a specialist in the herbal medicine world. It only does one thing… but it does that one thing really, really well. If you’re suffering from any sort of skin irritation, whether it’s poison ivy, athlete’s foot, or Lord forbid, hemorrhoids, jewelweed will cure what ails you. If you’re hiking in any creek bottoms this time of year, keep an eye out for this jewelry box of the bottomlands. If it’s after a rain and the sun’s out, the leaves will sparkle like they’re encrusted in diamonds, and the bright orange flowers hang like rubies or orange peridots. Admire it, note it, and collect some of it!
Have you ever used jewelweed to treat poison ivy? What about made a salve or decoction from it? Tell us in the comments!