Jewel of the Forest

When you walk through natural wooded areas like McDonald Woods, you may find this plant:

PHOTO: Spotted jewelweed blooms and developing seed pod.
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.

PHOTO: Closeup of a ripe jewelweed seed pod.
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.

PHOTO: Spotted jewelweed (nonblooming) shows the leaf shape and seed pods.
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

Recognizing Poison Ivy

Trees are not the only plants whose leaves change color and drop in the fall. Poison ivy is gorgeous this time of year!

PHOTO: Poison ivy with red leaves growing as a vine on a tree.

Yes, there is poison ivy growing at the Chicago Botanic Garden. It can be seen growing as a vine on the tree in this picture.

Contrary to popular opinion, it is not a “wicked plant”; it is part of the habitat. The chemical in poison ivy that causes us misery, urushiol, does not bother other animals. In fact, deer eat the leaves and many animals eat the small whitish berries that appear in late fall and winter.

Poison ivy leaves vary a little from plant to plant, but once you get to know the basic shape it is unmistakable. First notice the characteristic three leaflets that remind us “Don’t Touch Me!”

Now look at how the top leaflet is symmetrical and attached to the main stem by a short, thinner stem called a petiole. 

The lower leaflets have thumb-like lobes that point away from the top leaf. These leaves attach to the stem at their base.

Can you find the poison ivy in this picture?

PHOTO: Poison ivy leaves are bright red on the forest floor, which is covered in brown and gold leaves fallen from the trees.

If you identified the red leaves as poison ivy, then you are ready to hike a trail at the Garden this month and enjoy the color!

We make every effort to remove poison ivy from edges of trails so fear not! Stay on the paths, learn to recognize it, and you have nothing to worry about.  See if you can spot (but not touch!) some poison ivy along the way.