Jewelweed for your bites, stings and rashes

by Danielle Charles

In winter when I dream of  summer days, I’m quite sure those dreams don’t contain biting insects, rash inducing plants or sunburns.  It’s the nature of memory, isn’t it, to just edit out all the little unpleasantries that might detract from the expectation of future bliss.  But despite what my memory tells me about the lovely summer days to come –  insects there are, sunburns there are, and occasionally – even a most unfortunate outbreak of poison ivy or poison oak  – to keep our summer revelry in some sort of check.

Thankfully, however, nature, while providing things to irritate, has also provided things to soothe, and one of my most recently discovered tools for dealing with all manner of summer induced skin irritations is the beautiful and much under-appreciated jewelweed.

Jewelweed is a member of the Impatiens family, and grows as a common weed in most Northern temperate regions of the world, preferring moist, rich soils. The common name derives from the way that water droplets bead on the water-repellent leaves into brilliant, silvery jewels that shimmer in the light:

The flowers, much beloved of hummingbirds, are yellow or spotted with orange and have long spurs, which make the entire flower look like a delicate fairy slipper. It gains its latin name Impatiens, and common name, “touch-me-not”, from the explosive manner in which the dried out seed pods disperse their seeds at just the lightest touch.

Jewelweed was used extensively by Native American for treating various skin irritations, from burns and hives to poison ivy, either as a poultice made from fresh aerial parts, or a wash made from a decoction of the leaves and stems.  While most European herbalists don’t make much mention of this herb,  Maude Grieve does state that the tannin rich leaves have been used for piles and the fresh herb, “relieves cutaneous irritation of various kinds, especially that due to Rhus poisoning (poison ivy).”

Many people assert that jewelweed not only treats poison ivy, but can actually prevent the rash from occurring when used immediately upon exposure.  As jewelweed often grows in the same area as poison ivy, applying a bit of crushed up herb is often possible, and Native Americans viewed this as a direct act of the Great Spirit to set the remedy next to the poison.  One study conducted in the 1950s (Lipton, RA)  demonstrated that of 115 patients treated with jewelweed, 108 showed dramatic response to an application of jewelweed aqueous extract and were relieved of their symptoms of poison ivy within 2-3 days. However, research since then has been fairly consistent in demonstrating that jewelweed is ineffective in reducing the actual rash, though several studies have demonstrated its effectiveness for reducing itchiness and irritation.

Say what research will, my own experience with Jewelweed and that of others must testify to its usefulness. The aerial parts contain a variety of medicinally active constituents. Flavanoids such as apigenin, quercitin and kaempferol may contribute to the anti-inflammatory property and anti-allergic qualities demonstrated by the plant, while molecules known as napthoquinones, especially lawsone, may help to prevent poison ivy by competing with the chemical urushiol (the molecule responsible for triggering the poison ivy rash) for receptor sites on the skin (Duke, J).  Lawsone is also the active ingredient of Preperation-H and has demonstrated anti-fungal, anti-bacterial and anti-inflammatory activities by inhibiting the enzyme COX-2, as well as anti-tumor action on certain human cancer cell lines.   Compounds known as balasaminones have also been found in animal studies to demonstrate anti-pruritic action.

Jewelweed can be prepared in various ways, though most attest that it works best applied directly to the skin as a fresh plant poultice.  When exposed to poison ivy, one should apply the plant immediately to the effected area, and thus may prevent the development of the rash from ever occurring. It can also be used for pre-existing outbreaks of poison ivy, bug bites, stings, hives and other skin irritations, by placing a poultice of mashed up plant material directly onto the affected area several times daily to reduce irritation and speed healing (note: for poison ivy, fresh plant material should be used for each new application to prevent spread.) The aerial parts of the plant can also be made into a tea which one can soak a cloth in to use as a compress, or use as a wash for irritated skin.

Since fresh plant material isn’t always available to us when it should be, jewelweed can also be prepared in various other ways to have on hand for when we need it.  One of my favorite preparations is to freeze the tea into ice cube trays. An ice-cube can then be used as needed on bites, stings or rashes to cool irritation and provide quick relief.  Jewelweed can also be extracted into witch-hazel extract, whose astringent properties synergize quite well with Jewelweed for swollen, weeping rashes and skin irritations.

Jewelweed juice has also been a favorite traditional preparation for topical use, but as it spoils quite fast on its own,  I like to prepare a succus of the fresh plant juice to have on hand.  A succus is made by putting fresh plant material through a juicer  (or blending the material and then pressing it through a weighted press) and adding a volume of grain alcohol (180 proof) equal to a third of the total volume of juice (ie if you have 300 ml of juice, add 100 ml grain alcohol). You can also use a regular liquor such as vodka or brandy, but then increase the amount to 2/3 of the total volume of juice so that your finished succus ends up having around a 25% alcohol content to ensure preservation.  After three days, filter out the succus by pouring it through a paper filter or cheesecloth, and bottle and store. It can be applied directly to skin irritations or added as combined with other herbs such as aloe, witch-hazel, plantain or calendula extracts. The succus of jewelweed is quite fun to make because it turns from forest green to red upon the addition of alcohol! Herbal alchemy in action!

Jewelweed is an important addition to the summer toolbox of home remedies, and an even greater one because it is abundant and local.  As many say, the herbs we need the most are those that grow most prolifically and closest to the back door. And at least if summer gives us the nuisance of bugs and rash inducing plants to contend with, it gives us the pleasure of preparing our own remedies to soothe the summer’s ills.