With the advent of spring and the fairer weather, if you are anything like me the woods are calling you and asking you to explore. There are so many lovely things to see and experience on a walk in the woods. As with all things in life, there are some not so wonderful things as well. For instance, Poison Ivy (Toxicodendron radicans) creates an itchy rash or worse when most people touch it.
Why do those annoying plants make us break out in itchy rashes? The culprit is urushiol, a chemical found in the leaves and stems of the plants. Urushiol is one of the most potent toxins; a mere one billionth of a gram is enough to affect a sensitive individual. Direct contact with urushiol causes skin irritation in about 90% of the population.
The first line of defense against poison ivy is to get to know what it looks like and never touch it. It is potent and has the ability to give you an allergic reaction all year round. Nevertheless, sometimes it is unavoidable. Therefore, the next best thing is get to know Jewelweed (Impatiens capensis). Jewelweed’s blocking and healing properties are amazing. The active ingredient in Jewelweed is a chemical called lawsone, which binds to the same molecular sites in the skin that the urushiol attacks. If Jewelweed is applied quickly enough, it can beat the urushiol to those sites and lock it out. If applied later, the lawsone works to block the action of the allergic resin in the skin and helps heal the rash.
Apparently, if you apply Jewelweed within three hours of contact with poison ivy you can block the allergic reaction. On a hike a couple of years ago, we tested this theory. I was hiking with Mike and Mathew around a lake in the National Forest, all of sudden we were surrounded by Poison Ivy. We had to make a decision, turn around and go back or go forward through large patches of Poison Ivy, which was high as our knees. It was a tough decision as we were ¾ of the way around the lake, it was very hot, we were running low on water and very tired. I noticed some Jewelweed and we decided to risk the walk through the Poison Ivy. After we got through all the Poison Ivy, we took the Jewelweed, mashed it up in our hands and rubbed it all over the exposed areas of our legs. Jewelweed makes a very moist pulp and is easy to spread. I am overjoyed to tell you that it worked. None of us got a Poison Ivy rash.
Jewelweed is easier to identify when it’s flowering, then again aren’t most plants. No need to wait until late summer to identify Jewelweed, it’s growing now and will block the rash from contact with Poison Ivy. It’s stem is distinctively succulent, which is rather unusual. The delicate leaves are 1/4 to 1/2″ long-oval, long-stalked, with a few rounded teeth. The upper leaves are alternate, the lower ones opposite. They’re water-repellent, so they look like they’re covered with tiny jewels (raindrops) after it rains, hence the name Jewelweed. Another name for Jewelweed is “Touch-Me-Nots” which refers to its seeds. When the seeds are ripe and lightly touched, they burst apart as they have a spring mechanism inside. When I was a kid, I loved liberating the seeds in the fall.
Luckily, Jewelweed and Poison Ivy tend to grow in the same habitat. So get to know what Poison Ivy and Jewelweed looks like. You may need to be saved someday.