Spotted Jewelweed (Impatiens capensis) is a common sight in North America, from Northern Florida to southern Canada, during the summer and early fall months near creeks, ditches, and other shady wetlands. It’s easily identifiable as a leafy plant growing up to 5 feet tall with bright orange, trumpet shaped flowers with red spots, and translucent stems. They are also known as Touch-Me-Nots because their long seed pods build pressure until they pop when touched, effectively spreading their seeds to the surrounding soil. This is especially important as Jewelweed is an annual angiosperm, living only one year. In addition to being beautiful, and an important source of food and shelter for humming birds, salamanders, bees, and other wildlife, it also has some pretty wonderful medicinal benefits!
The leaves and stem of the jewelweed plant are highly mucilaginous, which means if you crush them between your hands or otherwise break them the plant releases a viscous substance known as mucilage. Now, hold that thought for a second. When you’re out and about in the natural world, hiking, gardening, picnicking, or what have you, you might very well run into the plants poison ivy, poison oak, or stinging nettle. If you touch these plants with your bare skin you will likely experience pain, itching, irritation, skin rash, and inflammation. But the good news is that not only does Jewelweed usually live right near these plants, the mucilage can be applied topically to the affected area (this is a simple preparation called a “poultice”) to help reduce the symptoms and, for many people, if the Jewelweed is applied as soon as exposure happens, it can neutralize the chemicals in the plants that cause the irritation before symptoms arise!
The almost magic-like power of Jewelweed against the aggravating chemicals of botanical pests like poison ivy is due primarily to a compound called Lawsone, or C10H6O3. It has anti-inflammatory, antihistamine, and antifungal actions. Lawsone also binds to the same molecular site on the skin that urushiol does (the active ingredient in poison ivy and poison oak that causes the adverse physical response), and by applying Jewelweed topically before encountering “poisonous” plants, you can help prevent exposure to urushiol, formic acid (the chemical that makes Stinging Nettle sting), and other topical irritants.
Jewelweed is most effective when freshly picked and applied topically, but has also been clinically shown to be beneficial as an infusion in the form of an oil, salve, or balm. Surprisingly enough, Jewelweed soaps did not test as any more effective than standard, non-Jewelweed soaps. It’s this herbalist’s recommendation that you not waste your money on low quality, unproven products that have been sitting on shelves for goodness knows how long when you can make your own, or buy high quality Jewelweed products from a qualified medical herbalist.
The moral of the story is that it is fair to say that, as both a preventative and a response, Jewelweed is the best, and easiest, natural choice for staying comfortable in the woods or the garden this summer and fall.
These facts and opinions are those of a certified Master Herbalist, Dipl. Natural Health Consultant, and Reiki Master Teacher, and are for educational purposes only, and not intended to replace consultation with your qualified healthcare practitioner.