Impatiens capensis (Orange-spotted jewelweed / touch-me-not/spotted touch-me-not)

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Painting by Wendy Cortesi

Artist’s Statement:

Jewelweed is an annual plant in the balsam family that grows to a height of two to five feet and prefers damp areas in shade or part shade. It frequently grows along stream beds or in marshy areas. There is natural variation in the coloration of its stems and flowers. On some plants, the stems are green with reddish nodes. Others have reddish stems with green nodes and some have entirely green stems. The stems that are entirely green appear to have pure yellow flowers without the orange or red spots. Its flowers, about an inch long, terminate in a nectar spur bent underneath and parallel to the flower. The long beaks of hummingbirds, and their ability to hover, make them especially well suited to reach the nectar and, in the process, to pollinate the plant.

The name touch-me-not probably refers to the explosive quality of the ripe, green seedpods that burst at the lightest touch, scattering the seeds. Close observation of the exploding pods reveals that the tiny vertical sections usually break apart at the bottom tip first, causing them to curl up in spirals. The name jewelweed is thought to refer to the tendency of rain and dewdrops to cling to tiny hairs on the leaves, making them sparkle in the sun. (Niering)

For my painting, I observed live plants in Catoctin Mountain Park, the National Arboretum, and various locations in Virginia and Maine. I photographed the plants extensively and collected some to press. I was not very successful in growing jewelweed in pots. Like many wildflowers, jewelweed wilts soon after picking. It will last somewhat longer if the whole plant, including the root, is pulled up and put in water.

Medicinal uses:

The sap from jewelweed's succulent stems and leaves has long been thought to relieve itching from contact with poison ivy and other poisonous plants when rubbed on the skin. Dr. James A. Duke, author of “The Green Pharmacy,” is a proponent of this claim. He reports that the active ingredient, identified as lawsome, counteracts the urushiol from the poisonous plants. He has suggested that juice from the reddish knobs with small roots that often grow from the lower stems near ground level probably contains more lawsome than the leaves.

Foster and Duke mention the use of leaf tea to prevent poison ivy rash, as well as rubbing frozen tea cubes on a rash and applying poultices of the plant parts as folk remedies for numerous additional skin problems.

However, two small placebo-controlled trials failed to demonstrate any benefits of jewelweed in treating the contact dermatitis caused by poison ivy. The plant should not be consumed (especially in individuals prone to kidney stones) because of the high levels of calcium oxalate. (NSD)