Jewelweed Is A Lovely Find With A Soothing Cleanse

A jewel of a wild plant, jewelweed, with its distinctive yellow and orange flowers, is both lovely and a welcome aid to anyone who encounters poison ivy.

by Melissa Calhoun
PHOTO: photos by Melissa Calhoun

Jewelweed is a very fun herb to introduce to people on a plant walk. It gets its name (depending on whom you ask) from either the delightful flowers hanging beneath the green leaves like tiny jewels or from the way that tiny dew droplets shimmer like jewels on the tops of the leaves.

Impatiens capensis is orange flowered, while impatiens pallida, a larger and yellow flowering species, is just as gorgeous. Some also call it spotted touch-me-not for those impatiens-typical seeds that explode when touched (a very fun garden activity for kids).

You can demonstrate a silvery, jewel-esque shine by dipping the underside of a leaf into some water and swirling it around while submerged. This is a useful identification tool and also beautiful. Plenty of other plants have this quality, but jewelweed takes the cake with its fish-like multi-colored glimmers.

You can find it near streams, and it is a commonly associated remedy for poison ivy. As it likes to grow in similar environments to poison ivy, one may hear folks say you can always find a jewelweed remedy near where poison ivy grows. I’d say they both love wet shady spots, but the ivy thrives in many other places, too.


A Note About Poison Ivy

Use jewelweed only externally, as a wash. It contains soapy molecules called saponins that can bind to urushiols (a rash-inducing oil that seeps into one’s skin from plants). I’ve known people to crush fresh jewelweed into their sandals as a way of preventing poison ivy oils as they crash through the trails where it cannot be avoided.

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I would never recommend crashing through any poison ivy, as it is most often found growing where land has been too often trodden. And anyway the threat of rash alone is reason enough to respect the ivy saying, “Stay away, people!”

One of my teachers called this plant sister ivy, to give more respect to this warden of abused places. If one has the displeasure of being forced to eradicate poison ivy, I highly endorse a practice of calm intention and communication with the plant first followed by a good wash with lots of soap and several rinses of cold water.

A Remedy for Poison Ivy

Intentionally treading where poison ivy grows is never a good idea. But on a dense plant hike you might not always see the warnings hidden or be able to avoid it.

When you come into contact with poison ivy, it’s always a good idea to do the cold wash as soon as you notice your skin has contacted the plant. A rule of thumb is to wash about a half hour before the oils have seeped in enough to cause a rash, but I prefer less than five minutes!

In the woods, however, without soap handy, jewelweed is our friend. I crush it up with cold water—usually easy to find as jewelweed loves to  grow by the creeks—and do several rinses to be safest.

A Beneficial Forage

I also bring jewelweed home and make a (non-potable) tea, which I put it in the freezer to have on hand for the whole year. It’s not only helpful for preventing and soothing poison ivy rashes, but its soapiness can help wash as well as soothe the skin during many uncomfortable events involving heat, stings or wounding.

A tea can be made with a few large handfuls or as much as you can cover with water. Use the whole above-ground part of the plant, including leaves, stems and flowers. Jewelweed is said to be especially potent when flowering.

Chop the plant coarsely and pour boiling water over it. Let it steep until cool, strain, and freeze or refrigerate. This herbal preparation will be a deep reddish tint, and the fresh juice will often leave a red stain on your skin. The stain, and the slimy soapy feeling you sense as you express the juices of the freshly crushed plant over your skin, will help you assess when you’ve thoroughly rinsed.

You can combine jewelweed with other herbs such as plantain, yarrow and corn silk to make a medicated wash for irritated skin issues like rash, bug bites and scrapes. It is soothing and cooling, but, again, don’t drink tea or eat the leaves.

Identifying Jewelweed

As mentioned jewelweed flowers can be orange or yellow. The yellow flowering jewelweed is larger and common along our larger Kentucky River banks, with much larger leaves and taller plants. The orange flowering jewelweed tends to thrive in the smaller creeks, hiding in woodlands and rocky hillsides around ephemeral streams.

It will sow itself happily in a shady garden. I like to let jewelweed grow around my porch steps so that our legs brush by it everyday. It is happy as a “cut and come again” herb, forming new branches and flowers easily when pruned respectfully. The flowers are absolutely delightful and worthy of long observant gazes.

Jewelweed, especially the orange flowering variety, is also a favorite of hummingbirds, so we get to observe these tiny birds up close visiting the patches among the trees on our hillside.

Dry Some Jewelweed for Later

Since a fresh decoction will only last at most a week in the fridge, you can dry jewelweed and make your tea when needed (although the fresh plant is considered most potent and useful).

To dry, wait for the plant to flower to harvest, then hang it in bunches in a paper sack out of sunlight at ambient room temperature with good airflow. It’s ready to be placed into storage containers when it breaks (without crumbling to dust) when pinched.

Good dried medicinal jewelweed should retain its dark green-to-reddish hue while. If it turns too dark and appears black, your jewelweed has oxidized and is no longer good. Similarly, if it has dried too slowly, it will take on a pale brownish-green color, which is also not good.

As always, be sure to have a trained botanist confirm your identification before harvest and use. And for best medicine be sure to sit still long enough to appreciate the beauty of this jewel of a plant before you smash it to bits on your ankles.

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