Jewelweed may take a season or two to control
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Q: I have some weeds growing on a hillside in my yard and I don’t know what they are. The stems are hollow and full of liquid and they have spread everywhere. I would like to know what they are and how to get rid of them.
A: The photo you enclosed is of a common wild plant called jewelweed or touch-me-not. The first common name originates from the orange or yellow flowers that look much like a lady’s earring; the latter name is appropriate because when you lightly squeeze a ripe seed pod, it pops open forcefully and shoots its seeds far and wide (which would explain, in part, why you have so much of it on your hillside).
Jewelweed is a Pennsylvania native with an interesting story. It is an annual that spreads via seeds and can grow up to 6 feet tall. The plant is succulent (its tissues and hollow stem can hold a lot of water) and the sap that is produced from the stem was — and is — commonly used to relieve the itching from a poison ivy rash. The Native Americans used it for any number of skin ailments, including bee stings and insect bites.
Jewelweed is a close relative of impatiens and generally prefers wet soil and semi-shaded sites. The elongated flowers are favorites of hummingbirds and some species of butterflies, making them a “not-so-bad wildflower” in my book, rather than a weed.
That being said, any plant that takes over a hillside as it has at your place, might need to be controlled. Organic and/or conventional foliar herbicides aren’t very effective against jewelweed simply because its succulent foliage causes these water-based products to bead on the leaf surface, preventing the product from getting absorbed and taking effect.
Since jewelweeds are annuals, a few simple steps will cut down on their population significantly. First and foremost, do not allow them to go to seed. Either weed wack them or pull the plants out before the flowers open so the seeds can’t spread. Thankfully, you’ll find them to be shallow rooted and quite easy to pull out with nothing more than your hands. Mulch the area well with several inches of shredded bark (underlay it with a layer of corrugated cardboard or several sheets of newsprint for added protection).
Seeds that were dropped into the soil can remain viable for many years so try not to till or disturb the area. Doing so can bring these dormant seeds up to the surface and enable them to germinate, prolonging your problem. Each spring add another layer of mulch and pull up any young seedlings that sprout. Within a season or two you’ll have great control.
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When you walk through natural wooded areas like McDonald Woods, you may find this plant:
You can’t miss the orange flowers of this jewelweed, but look closer to find the seedpod hanging below and to the right of the third blossom.
Its scientific name is Impatiens capensis, and jewelweed has some interesting features that make it worth getting to know. Its common names, jewelweed and touch-me-not probably come from the characteristics of the flowers and seeds. The bright orange blossoms have a jewel-like quality and stand out against the green foliage.
The swollen seedpod on this plant looks ripe and ready to pop.
You might expect a plant called “touch-me-not” to be toxic or irritating to the skin. This is not the case. The name comes from a little seedpod surprise. When they are ripe, a slight disturbance will cause them to pop open and squirt their seeds out.
We have to assume that someone called it “touch-me-not” after touching a seedpod and having the seeds shoot at him. Maybe it seemed as if the plant was reacting negatively to his touch. Rather than a defense mechanism, shooting seeds is an effective dispersal strategy, as it sends the seeds away from the mother plant where they might have a better chance to sprout and grow.
Viewed from above, the characteristic oval leaf shape and a seedpod growing from the center stem are evident.
Finding jewelweed in the forest right now may be a little tricky because there aren’t many flowers remaining. Get to know the leaves—they are oval-shaped with a gently pointed tip, and have slightly toothed edges. The stem is thick and a translucent light green.
Jewelweed has some other interesting qualities. Native Americans squeezed the juice from the stem of jewelweed and applied it to poison ivy rashes and other skin ailments for a very soothing treatment. It is ironic that “touch-me-not” is a cure for “leaves of three—let it be,” don’t you think?
Folklore tells us that wherever you find a toxic plant, you will find its remedy growing nearby. It’s a nice idea, but it may not be true. That said, you will probably find poison ivy growing near jewelweed, so use caution and be careful not to touch when you are searching for this plant.
©2013 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org
Hummingbirds and other Migratory Birds
We learned some interesting things about hummingbirds in this interview with Ecologist Jim Steffen. You’ll find hummingbirds in many of our 24 display gardens and in our three native habitats. You’ll also find many other resident and migratory birds at the Garden because of the diversity of plant life. Visit chicagobotanic.org/birds for more information on birding at the Chicago Botanic Garden.