If you've ever wandered in the woodlands during a damp spring morning — when the dew is still heavy and ol' Sol is just beginning to peek over the horizon — chances are you've caught a glimpse of a jewelweed display. The leaves of this succulent annual (a member of the Impatiens genus) are unwettable, and dew "beads" on their surfaces. So when light strikes the tiny water spots, the sun's rays are refracted into every hue of the spectrum ... providing a sight that's a match for any array of costly jewels.
Later in the summer — if you happen to stroll through a patch of the wide-ranging herb — you may suddenly find yourself in the midst of what appears to be a miniature mine field ... as the ripened, slipper-shaped seed pods of the jewelweed plant actually catapult their contents when they are disturbed.
But that's about all most folks know about the slender succulent. Here in the hills of West Virginia, though, some people have long gathered jewelweed (also called balsam, snapweed, touch-me-not, or quick-in-the-hand) as a wild food delicacy and medicinal plant.
Pick It Pale or Speckled
There are two common species of jewelweed, and they're easily distinguished from one another, although they are equally tasty and identical in their medicinal capabilities. You'll find Impatiens pallida — often called the "woodland species" — along forested stream banks and in other wet, shady retreats. The pale lemon-yellow flowers characteristic of this strain bloom from July to October.
The spotted jewelweed (Impatiens capensis ) has a slightly stronger affinity for light than does its sun-shirking cousin, so look for its mottled butter-yellow and reddish brown blossoms in shady or sunny moist locations along brooks and roadsides, or in damp meadows. And — since this species also sprouts a bit earlier than the paler variety — you can begin foraging for capensis sprigs in early June and continue hunting the plant through late September.
A Forager's Feast
Once you spy the slender shoots poking up through the forest debris or waving among the meadow grasses, you're ready to reap the first jewelweed harvest. The tender stems — which should be collected when they're only four to six inches high — can be prepared in a variety of ways. I like them best cut into bite-sized morsels ... boiled for a total of 10 to 15 minutes in two changes of slightly salted water ... then drained and served up with butter, plus a dash of salt and black pepper or a sprinkle of vinegar.
I also serve jewelweed sprouts in cream sauce on toast for a light spring supper. Furthermore, although some wild foods guidebooks suggest that the touch-me-not shoots must be cooked to be palatable, I've found that the very young sprouts (those that are no more than two inches high) are often tasty raw.
Jewelweed's seeds can be collected for table use as well! The kernels in those explosive pods may be small, but don't let that fact discourage you! The capsules' contents are dead ringers (in terms of taste) for English walnuts ... and they're a whole lot less expensive than the store-bought nutmeats.
To harvest jewelweed seeds, simply explode the pods into a plastic bag, and then separate the eatables from the hulls after you finish collecting. You can use the free-for-the-gathering seeds to flavor your favorite cookies, breads, and puddings.
An Itch Alternative
Besides providing good table fare, jewelweed is frequently used as a poison ivy cure. Whenever I suspect that I've been exposed to skin-irritating poison ivy oils, I smear some juice from crushed balsam stalks on the affected spots as I traipse along, or — after reaching home — add the strained extract from a pound or so of boiled jewelweed to my bathwater ... and I've always come out itch-free!
Jewelweed "sap" can also be made into a soothing lotion for use on irritated skin. To brew up the homemade remedy, cover a potful of the versatile plant with water and boil the liquid down to half its original volume. The strained juice can then be used "fresh" to prevent an ivy outbreak (simply apply it to the exposed area), or be frozen in ice cube trays.
Once the squares have solidified, transfer the medicated ice to a plastic bag and store it in the freezer. Then, if you should find yourself nursing a bad bout of itching in the late fall or early spring (when jewel weed is out of season), simply melt some of the "stashed" salve, smear it liberally on the infected area, and enjoy immediate relief!
You'll also find that the extract from the crushed stems of Impatiens will help alleviate irritations caused by contact with stinging nettles ... and I've heard that native Americans have long used the juice of the touch-me-not to treat athlete's foot and other fungal skin inflammations.
So this spring while you're outdoors reacquainting yourself with the beauty and bounty of Mother Nature, get to know the jewelweed plant. It will soon become a welcome visitor both at your supper table and in your medicine cabinet!