The name “jewelweed” sounds like a contradiction. A jewel is valuable and prized, but a weed is something you don’t want and often go to great efforts to get rid of.
There’s an explanation, however. When British settlers came to America they named many of our wild plants “weeds.” Consider ironweed, Joe-pye weed and butterflyweed. These native wildflowers are beautiful additions to the garden; yet they are saddled with the inappropriate moniker. The same is true for jewelweed.
Because of their shape, jewelweed flowers have been described as looking like earbobs, but having flowers that resemble jewelry is probably not how the plant got its name. Jewelweed more than likely got its name from its leaves, not its flowers. During the night the plant will expel excess water through a process called guttation. These beads of water form on the edge of the leaves and sparkle like a diamond necklace in the morning sun. I felt like I had walked into Tiffany’s when I came upon a large, glistening patch of jewelweed many years ago; “weed” in the name is unfortunate, but “jewel” is more than warranted.
Jewelweed is related to the familiar impatiens sold at garden centers and nurseries. Like those impatiens, jewelweed appreciates moisture and you are most likely to see it growing in low meadows and along streams and ponds. Our most familiar jewelweed, the spotted jewelweed (Impatiens capensis), is adorned in late summer with orange flowers spotted with red or orange red. Like other impatiens, the flowers have a spur that holds nectar. This makes the flowers appealing to hummingbirds, and you are quite likely to spot one or more of these flying jewels darting among the plant’s branches. Spotted jewelweed depends on hummingbirds for pollination, and it is probably not a coincidence that it begins blooming as ruby-throated hummingbirds are beginning their migration to Mexico.
There is one other species of jewelweed native to Georgia: the pale jewelweed (Impatiens pallida). The main noticeable difference is the color of the flowers. Pale jewelweed is yellow or (rarely) cream. It is not as common as spotted jewelweed and prefers limestone sites. It is also less attractive to hummingbirds.
Jewelweed is an annual that re-seeds itself where happy. If you want to introduce it to your garden, collect the seed now. As the seeds mature, the seedpod will fatten and change from green to yellow green and will “pop” when touched or picked. This explosive mechanism scatters the seeds in all directions and is why jewelweed and some other impatiens are sometimes called “touch-me-nots.” In fact, the genus name Impatiens comes from the “impatience” of the pods at releasing their cargo. This characteristic can make collecting seed a little tricky. After some practice you will be able to gather them into an envelope. Store them in the refrigerator and sow in the spring after danger of frost.
Because it likes moisture, spotted jewelweed may not be appropriate for everyone’s garden. It is a good candidate to plant near a spigot or air-conditioning outlet or any naturally moist place in your landscape. It prefers sun or partial shade. Scarlet hibiscus, canna, seashore mallow, swamp goldenrod, bog salvia, buttonbush and cardinal flower are ideal companion plants that like the same conditions.
One final note: the sap of jewelweed is believed to help reduce the rash and itching from poison ivy. I hope I never have to test this for myself.
"Arty's Garden" is written by Arty Schronce. He invites everyone to learn more about gardening and nature.