Unknown plants enamor gardeners

July 18, 2014

Finding a gift for a gardener is hardly a task at all.

I have yet to meet a gardener who is not enamored with plants unknown. Some are delighted by far away specimens from exotic climates; others are intrigued by unfamiliar natives seen underfoot or along the road. Any non-gardener who hangs around sees first-hand the tireless questioning and absurd detail that can come about from one seemingly mundane plant. Essentially, gardeners are explorers. Explorers cannot be expected to focus on a crock pot of melting crayons when there is a totally undiscovered flower blooming en masse twenty feet away, can they? Allow me to back up a little.

When I was seven — or maybe eight, I was at a week-long day camp at Camp Lazarus. Camp Lazarus had been leased as a venue by the company holding my camp. One day there was an arts and crafts afternoon setup in a dining pavilion. Off to the side, on the edge of the woods, there was a lush patch of densely growing plants. The leaves were milky green, and they had little blooms of orange and yellow that were consistently swaying in the wind. As if brightly colored flowers waving at me weren’t enough, they had all sorts of bees and butterflies collecting pollen. Obviously, what little interest I had in candle making was lost once this plant caught my attention. Anyway, the rule in the arts and crafts pavilion was to stay on the concrete. This plant was not on the concrete, so I kept getting in progressively more trouble. Eventually, one of the counselors asked me why I was so intent on wandering toward the woods? She let me pick a few of these plants and take them back within the confines of the concrete. She then explained that the plant was jewelweed, and a Native American remedy for poison ivy. She offered everyone a chance to make a salve of the jewelweed. So I threw my homely reddish-brown candle back in the crock pot and was introduced to one of my very favorite plants.

Jewelweed (Impatiens capensis) is a common native to much of North America. As their Latin name implies, they are related to common garden impatiens. Native jewelweed is much like its more valued cousin. Both grow best in shady, loamy, moist soil. Although annual, it reseeds very efficiently when allowed to flower. The leaves and flowers are often broken down together in a mortar and pestle and used as a topical folk remedy for skin rashes, most notably poison ivy, although this has not been proven in clinical studies. Legend goes that wherever there is poison ivy to irritate someone, there is jewelweed growing beside it.

Jewelweed has a unique bloom that looks like a small horn or cup. Relative to their size (about that of a nickel), they are packed with pollen. This makes them highly attractive to bees. They are also especially attractive to hummingbirds. Because of their cup-like bloom, many pollinators cannot reach the pollen inside. With long beaks designed to reach deeply for pollen, hummingbirds have quite the advantage in utilizing jewelweed. This makes jewelweed a wonderful choice for a gardener interested in attracting hummingbirds who lacks the sun to grow many other typical hummingbird-magnet plants. It can be easily grown from seed. Or transplanted from somewhere it is already growing (assuming one has permission to take a specimen). Again, it reseeds easily. One plant will quickly become several.

The best news? Being a native, jewelweed is exceptionally easy to grow. In fact, I looked the other way when it “invaded” a bed full of hydrangeas. After enduring brutality this past winter, the hydrangeas were weary to wake up. The jewelweed was not, and swarmed the area. Next year that bed will probably return to a strictly hydrangea bed. As far as “weeds” go, jewelweed is a very easy one to remove. I will admit though, this year I am happy to step off the concrete and enjoy a “new” plant that reminds me of old times.

Stephen Jones is a Delaware County OSU Extension Master Gardener Volunteer.