Autumn Jewels of the Floodplain

Jewelweed Flower with Friend

When I took this photo, I didn’t even notice the spider hiding below the flower, waiting for an unsuspecting pollinator to drop by and become its dinner. All my attention was on the bloom of this lovely native wildflower common to our moist, shady woodlands. Most folks I know call it Jewelweed, probably because the yellow and orange flowers glow like gems among its tall, succulent stems and green scalloped leaves. Another name is Spotted Touch-Me-Not, and I’ll tell you why in a moment. The botanists call this wildflower Impatiens capensis.

My floodplain is covered in large stands of this tall (2-5 feet) wildflower this year — the first year I’ve been able to say that in about seven or so years. In recent years, the deer population has been so heavy that these plants were chomped before they ever got a chance to bloom. But this year (knock wood), the deer seem much less abundant.

I suspect I can thank the enormous 1000-acre suburb being erected by a California developer just a mile or so from my house. A few years ago, when the bulldozers erased the mature forest on that spot, all the displaced deer moved to my yard — or at least that’s how it seemed to me. For a few years, those displaced deer were so hungry that they ate everything — even the poisonous plants like pokeweed and Mayapple.  But now, deer browsing is much less severe. I think the deer have gone back to graze on the newly planted lawns and fertilized shrubs planted by the California development company. Given a choice between fertilized ornamental plants and native growth, I’ve observed that deer will eat the fertilized goodies every time. Frankly, I’d rather have the thousand acres of forest back. But since I can’t, it seems only fair that the deer have returned to graze their old stomping grounds.

Now my Jewelweeds flourish in every corner of my floodplain. See how the back end of the flower in the photo above tapers to a point? That’s custom built for hummingbird dining pleasure. They zip among the flowers sipping nectar as soon as the flowers start blooming in late June. Migrant hummers passing through to their winter homes south of here can spot my stands of Jewelweed easily. I like knowing I help ease their travels. The last straggler is long gone before frost kills these long-blooming wildflowers.

As for the Touch-Me-Not designation, that’s because of their nifty seed pods. These longish pods swell as the seeds develop. When they’re mature, the lightest touch causes them to explosively split open and shoot their seeds in all directions. It’s great fun to coax the pods into exploding between your fingers. I’ve never met a child or adult who isn’t instantly enthralled by this activity. Here’s a shot of flowers and pods:

Jewelweed flowers and seed pods

Now you’ll know what to look for when you spot these distinctive yellow and orange flowers. The fatter the seed pod, the more violent the explosion. No wonder the flowers spread themselves around — those seeds travel quite a ways when the pods pop.

Butterflies and bees also love these flowers, and the juice of the stems is purported to cure the itch of poison ivy rashes. I’ve never tried this, but I know some folks who swear by this remedy. Jewelweed conveniently tends to grow in the same kinds of places that poison ivy likes, so you may one day find yourself in a position to try this folk cure. The juice also has documented fungicidal properties and has been used to cure Athlete’s Foot. I’ve never had the need to try that remedy either.

But even if this lovely wildflower had no medicinal properties, it would be worth adding to your moist shady spots for the hummingbirds and other pollinators — and to light up your shaded areas with their warm jewel-like colors.

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