August 20, 2002

Jewels of August The

image copyright Fred First

The seasons of spring, summer and early fall at my house are measured as much in flowers as they are in numbers on the calendar. Like old friends who always visit at the same time every year and take their places in the same seats at the table....wet stream borders, pasture margins, deep woods. Over the years, wildflowers have become good friends; I love to see them come, and hate to see them go.

The Spotted Jewel Weed, seen three weeks ago singly, here and there, is now popping up in every moist depression, like the rest of us, happy for what little rain we have finally seen here in the last week. Although the flower itself could account for this particular common name, it is, in fact, the way that water beads up on the leaves like jewels that accounts for this name. Where it grows it typically grows in profusion and finding a dense stand on a moist early morning is like stumbling across a gossamer gown adorned with thousands of round mirrored sequins.

The flower's shape is what botanists call 'strongly zygomorphic', meaning that there is only one plane that can pass through the flower to create mirror images, rather than 4, 5 or more seen in many flowers. This, coupled with the bright orange-red color, makes me suspect (if I didn't already know) that this flower is hummingbird pollinated, though moths and butterflies, with their long curled sipping mouthparts, can also get at the nectar housed deep in the spurred part of the flower. It hangs on the merest thread from the plant, and in the least wind, the whole plant oscillates with orange spangles.

In practical terms, the Jewel Weed, Impatiens capensis, is handy to have around. Especially early in its growth, the stem is succulent, meaning it is mostly water, and consequently, almost clear. We pick a few soft early stems and put them in the freezer for later in the summer, when we most certainly will come in contact with poison ivy, yellow jackets, and stinging nettle. It grows in exactly the same places as nettle, and when rubbed on these skin irritations, goes a long way to take the sting and itch out. Unfortunately, it does not do much good on the terrible sting I got last week from the Saddleback Caterpillers, where the stinging hairs become embedded in the skin.

A third common name for the plant is worth paying attention to: Touch Me Not. It is not so named because it is in any way irritating or poisonous, but because of the behavior of its seedpods. The elongated corn-ear-shaped seed pods grow up to more than an inch long. Each consists of four long flaps that come together to make up the pod. As the pods dries and the seeds inside begin to mature, pressure builds up in the flaps, more so on the outside that the inside of each flap. Consequently, then the pods are touched by an animal (or a small child encouraged to do so by a tricky adult who knows what to expect), the pod opens explosively, ejecting its seeds a few feet away from the parent plant, thus propagating itself into new soil.

A final note: the ejected seeds when mature and brown are very good to eat, tasting like tiny nuts. Our children always enjoyed being 'startled' by the exploding seeds, while catching as many of the seeds as they could, to nibble on. One time they had the idea that maybe these little mock-seeds would be good in cookies. So, we baked some cookies and substituted Jewel-nuts instead of pecans. Eaten right out of the oven, they were delicious. We gave some to our neighbor across the street. A few days later, she commented "Those cookies were mighty good, but what were those little pebbles you put in them?" Discovery: when the mock-nuts dry out again, they are hard as rocks. Ah well. At least as we can add Jewel-weed cookies now to our list of 'wild foods'.

There are over 400 species world-wide in the genus Impatiens. Only two of them are indigenous to the US, and both of them grow here in the east. Jewel Weed or Touch-me-Not: by either name, it is a welcomed visitor each year. When we see it beginning to flower in profusion as it is this week, we know that it will only be another month until we will have to fire up the woodstove a time or two on a cold, early fall morning, when August wildflowers will be nothing more than a colorful memory.

Posted by fred1st at August 20, 2002 05:44 AM
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