Foraging Jewelweed Seed Pods (Tastes like walnuts!)
Herbalists know jewelweed (impatiens capensis) as a powerful anti-itch remedy that is safe and effective for mosquito bites and poison ivy, but when you’re out foraging for your summertime anti-itch medicine there’s also another tasty part of the plant to consider: the seeds.
The leaves and stalks are of questionable edibility, but the seedpods are a particularly special treat. Eaten carefully right off the plant, they pop in your mouth (which the kids love) and taste just like English walnuts.
Seriously. Straight up, full-on, walnut. Eyes closed you’d never know the difference.
It takes considerable care to harvest the seed pods from jewelweed without popping them, so Vermont farm kids raised in the ’50s and ’60s made a game of hunting down seedpods and carefully extracting them without popping them until they got them to their mouths.
Jewelweed reproduces by launching its seeds out in all directions when the pods are touched, much like the flowerbed impatiens that I grew up hunting down and popping for fun. Thus, their other name, “touch me not plant.”
The flowers are also edible and make a colorful salad, but they lack the excitement and flavor of the seed pods. Ben Harrison Charles, the author of Eat the Weeds, warns that you should eat jewelweed in moderation because it’s so rich in minerals that it can cause digestive upset. If you’re not used to eating nutrient-rich foods, watch how many you eat in a day until your body has gotten used to it.
In reality, the excess nutrients are not really a practical problem. Even the most devoted child can’t really consume that many jewelweed seeds. They take a good bit of time and patience to hunt down, even in a dense patch.
It’s good to know that in a survival situation, jewelweed seeds are not only tasty but nutrient-rich.
The Jewelweed Plant Is a Jewel of a Weed
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!
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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!
Published on Mar 1, 1981
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Spotted Jewelweed: Explosions, Illusions, and Curatives
When ripe, the lightest touch will cause the spring loaded seed pods to roll back into tightly curled strips that forcibly eject and disperse 4-5 green seeds.
When this time of year rolls around, I look forward to walking my daughter to and from school each day. The slow walk along a quiet road gives us an easy peek at the goings on of the natural world that lies along its edges. The roadside includes a thick spruce-fir forest, a sandy sunny berm, and some watery trickles in ditches, allowing for a variety of plants to thrive. I have learned to allow a few extra minutes to get to school in September, as the walk passes hundreds of spotted jewelweed plants full of bursting seed pods. My daughter loves to tap the swollen green cases, creating an exciting explosion that leaves her with a handful of coiled pod and tiny seeds.
Spotted Jewelweed gets its name from the spotted golden-orange flowers and the shimmery jewel-like appearance of its wet leaves. It also has the common name “touch me not”, not because it is poisonous, but because of those exploding seed pods. The plant grows in patches two to five feet tall in wet areas, such as the ditches along our roadsides. The leaves are oval shaped and bluish-green, with a scallop-like appearance along their edges. The flowers have a pleasingly artistic shape, as one of the sepals is modified into a large, pouch-like structure with a long spur, which elegantly dangles from the plant.
The leaves have tiny hairs that are thought to help the plant retain water while keeping clear of dust and other particles.
The showy flower keeps its nectar at the bottom of the deep spur for long-tongued pollinators such as hummingbirds, bees, and butterflies. When these animals cross-pollinate the flowers, the plants produce the explosive elongated seed pods. When ripe, the lightest touch will cause the spring loaded sections of the five-chambered capsule to roll back into tightly curled strips that forcibly eject and disperse 4-5 green seeds. Jewelweed begins blooming in mid-summer and continues to do so until the plant is killed by frost, with the seed pods ripening near the end of their reign.
Spotted Jewelweed gets its name from the spotted golden-orange flowers and the shimmery jewel-like appearance of its wet leaves.
Not only does jewelweed have an exquisite flower and an entertaining system of seed dispersal, but its leaves and stems are fascinating too. If you submerge one of its leaves under water, it will miraculously transform into silver! This is just an illusion that occurs as the minute hairs on the leaves surface trap air and repel water. This trait is believed to help the plant retain water while keeping dust and other materials off of the leaves surface. Jewelweed stems are weak and watery, smooth and almost translucent, and range in color from pale to reddish green. The juice of the stems is medicinal, reliving itching and pain from a variety of trailside ailments including poison ivy and bug bites.
So next time your walking along a road or a BRLT preserve with some low lying wet areas, be sure to keep a look out for jewelweed with its exploding seed pods, magical leaves, and curative stems. You can even keep a few of the seeds and directly sow them in any partly shaded moist areas in your yard this fall. It makes a lovely addition to native plant gardens, and once established, it will maintain itself through annual seed production, leaving you with your own jewelweed patch to marvel at.