I was mucking around in my marsh one fall and found bright turquoise seeds floating down the stream. Beautiful! But what plant?
Then, turquoise gems appeared in my sock drawer. A turquoise-seeded plant within mouse-commute of my bedroom? What could it be?
It was years later that I found the answer as I sat on the doorstep idly popping jewelweed pods. In case you have missed out on that amusement, when you squeeze or even try to pick a fat seedpod, it explodes into curls and squiggles, flinging its light-green seeds away from the parent plant.
Under the plant, I noticed ejected seeds, from light-green to almost black. As I played with a few in my palm, a black skin split off – the turquoise seed!
As children, we called the pretty seedpod curlicues “jewels.” Looking on the internet for more information, I found that some writers thought “jewel” referred to the bright water droplets on the leaves after a rain, or air bubbles on submerged leaves. Doesn’t that seem a bit far-fetched as you admire the magical curls in your hand? Learn more at millionsofconflictingideas.com.
Do you “surf” the internet? A fast, dramatic trip with an inevitable destination? I just drift around, carried by the currents. My web surfboard takes me among interesting, contradictory flotsam and jetsam. White sand beaches are rare.
People have been rubbing jewelweed on their poison ivy itches for eons. Where poison ivy grows, jewelweed is often found nearby. Some think they grow together for our use. Who knows? Kerry Hardy, in his delightful book “Notes on a Lost Flute: A Field Guide to the Wabanaki,” writes that jewelweed is called, “apuckolotokkuwewossok, meaning ‘little one that flips upside down,’ a reference to its exploding seed pods. The juice from the stem offers relief from insect bites and poison ivy.” Even if it has no pharmaceutical effect, might it help by temporarily sealing the skin from air?
One site told me that “jewelweed is said to relieve itching and pain from a variety of ailments, including hives, poison ivy, stinging nettle, and other skin sores and irritations.” Another says a study found that 107 out of 115 people had good results, but that newer studies negate the findings. Even Brandeis University seems conflicted. Its online “Field Guide to Medicinal Plants of the Northeastern United States” tells us that “jewelweed contains a compound called lawsone in its leaves proven to have antihistamine and anti-inflammatory properties.” “Medicinal Plants of the Northeast: An Electronic Field Guide” isn’t so sure: “Lawsone, a component of jewelweed leaves, has reported antihistamine and anti-inflammatory activity.”
Making a great sacrifice for science – or curiosity – I went to the garden to collect jewelweed and mosquito bites. I rubbed jewelweed on about half of the bites and magic-markered them green. Yellow marked untreated control bites. I’m publishing the results only in The Lincoln County News. Maybe the treated bites stopped itching a tad sooner. But maybe they were the first bitten or treated sooner after the bite, the mosquito injected less or weaker poison, I scratched those more – or less… Science ain’t easy.
I’m not going to experiment with the next website information. Webmd.com: “Jewelweed is probably safe for most people when taken by mouth or applied directly to skin.” I hadn’t thought of eating it. The Master Gardener program says the seed pods are poisonous. Just pods, just seeds, or both? Bright, turquoise gems among my socks were pretty, but the mice were probably thinking of food. Mice may be able to eat things I can’t; so even if I have a sudden craving for jewelweed, I’m not tasting.
Last, but not least, jewelweed is fashionably attractive to pollinating insects. A couple of days ago, there were lots of tiny hover flies, walking on air around the blossoms. Today there are bumble-looking bees with shiny black abdomens – carpenter bees? – that squeeze all the way into the inch-long flowers. I want to get out the bug books and identify them, but the fridge is bursting with broccoli for the freezer. Beets. Chard. Squash. What a year for growing things!
P.S.: Welcome to Lee Emmons’s column “Backyard Wildlife.” Thanks for the good words about snakes!
(Nancy Holmes prowled Linekin Neck in Boothbay as a child, then an Illinois bottomland while earning a master’s degree in wildlife management. Once back in Maine, she raised children and kept assorted animals, wild and domestic. She and her Carolina Dog roam their woods in Newcastle. Write to Holmes at firstname.lastname@example.org.)