Jewelweed

     The Long Island ornithologist John Elliott first introduced me to jewelweed many years ago.

     Back from the lovely ocean side of the islandıs Jones Beach are extensive swamps.  John loved those salt marshes and one hot, late summer afternoon in the 1950s he led me there to share with me some of ³his² marshıs many resident bird species.  We found rails and herons, gulls and terns, sandpipers and plovers, warblers and sparrows, a half dozen of which were life birds for me.

     However, John also pointed out to me, then an interested but ³green² botanist, two wildflowers.  The first was poison ivy.  The vines were everywhere, their tendrils twisting around the bases of the tall cattails and phragmites.  Easily identified by their leaflets in groups of three and their clumps of tiny white berries, they threatened our legs and occasionally — when the sucking mud pulled us down — even our arms and faces.  It was impossible to avoid some contact.

     Although I am one of those lucky people basically immune to poison ivy rashes, Johnıs stories of the bad experiences he and others had with this evil plant were making me nervous.  Poison ivy is never to be taken lightly.

     But John had an antidote.  He led me to another wildflower which grew in patches among the cattails.  Near the top of thin translucent stalks four to five feet tall and among a few egg-shaped alternate leaves draped golden snapdragon-like flowers.  This was jewelweed, the plant whose juices would protect us from a poison ivy rash.

     John showed me how to gather and crush several of the jewelweed stems, thoroughly wetting our hands with the watery liquid they contained.  We rubbed this over our skin everywhere we felt had been exposed to the ivy.  It worked for us: afterward our only physical reminder of that trip was sunburn.

     I have since learned that the juice of jewelweed was widely used by Native Americans as a treatment not only for poison ivy but also for fungi like what has come to be known as athleteıs foot, and as a poultice for wounds.  It remains today one of the most widely accepted remedies of the herbalistıs pharmacopoeia.

     Fortunately jewelweed is often found near poison ivy as their soil and water requirements are similar, but it is possible to prepare a decoction of jewelweed oil for use when the plant is not available. Collect a potful of leaves, stems, and flowers, cover them with water, and boil until the liquid becomes deep orange.  The solution may then be bottled and refrigerated or frozen for lengthy retention.

     As a hiker I have come to know jewelweed for a less attractive quality.  It retains water not only in its stem but also on its leaf and flower surfaces.  When I come upon a trail section overgrown with this plant I know I will emerge from the other side thoroughly drenched.

     The shape of jewelweed flowers makes them especially desirable to our ruby-throated hummingbirds which pollinate them while they feed on their nectar.  Meanwhile some wasps and bees ³rob² nectar, avoiding pollination by chewing through the base of the flower.  No problem: jewelweeds also bear self-pollinating flowers.

     Among its many other common names, jewelweed is known as touch-me-not, snapweed, and kicking colt.  These names derive from a delightful property of the plant when its seeds are mature.  Touch the seedpod and it bursts open, throwing the seeds several feet.  Every child should experience the fun of setting off some of these miniature firecrackers.

     Me too.  I admit a childlike pleasure in seeking out and exploding a few jewelweed seedpods each year.