Spotted Jewelweed

Impatiens capensis. Some say spotted jewelweed is so called because the colorful orange flowers dangle from the plant like earrings or pendants.  Others maintain it’s because the edges of the leaves, when wet with dew or rain, hold the tiny drops of water that look like “scintillating gems, dancing, sparkling in the sunshine,” as one naturalist put it over a century ago.  But it is also called Touch-Me-Not and no wonder: The seeds are housed in an ingenious case that, when mature and disturbed, suddenly “pops” like an uncoiling spring. The action sends the seeds flying as far as four or five feet, which is why spotted jewelweed can easily become widespread. Spotted Jewelweed is famous as a balm to relieve the itching caused by poison ivy. It is also supposed to prevent the rash from breaking out if you’ve touched the plant, apparently by attacking and dissolving the irritating poison ivy oil before it can adhere long enough to cause blistering.  Various American Indian groups put the plant to extensive use as a skin salve, treating such things as athlete’s foot and other fungi, wounds, and all sorts of itches in general. Colonial Americans used the juice to dye wool yellow, and ate the leaves as a potherb. In nature, its biggest admirer is the Ruby-throated Hummingbird, which thrives on its flowers in late spring and summer. Evolution has designed those flowers to be pollinated by the bill of the hummingbird, which picks up the grains of white pollen from just inside the top front of one flower and deposits them on the inside top of the next. Its official name is Impatiens capensis,  which oddly enough means “of the Cape of Good Hope.” The plant namer mistakenly thought his samples came from South Africa instead of North America. In the interests of stability, the International Code of Botanical Nomenclature does not permit changes in the specific name merely because it’s ‘inappropriate.’ Thus, we have a North American plant with a South African name.

Click here to return to the previous page