Aunt Bett had a subtle way of talking me into those early morning treks up the mountain. She peppered her words with enticing lures like diamonds, glittering jewels and flying emeralds. I was never disappointed when I arrived at wherever we were going, but sometimes her descriptions fell a little short of reality. Take her diamonds for example....
(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on June 24, 2008. Your comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to promptly respond to new questions or comments.)
Being a little girl, of course I knew all about jewels and diamonds, so when Aunt Bett said we were going in search of jewels, I was thinking in terms of rings and bracelets, maybe a tiara, or a necklace. I was pretty excited even though we started out in a bit of an early morning drizzle. I had on my little red riding hood raincoat, with the hood pulled up and my shiny red rubber boots on over my regular mountain climbing shoes. Aunt Bett carried an extra burlap bag to put our rain gear in because she assured me that the rain would stop as soon as we got to where the jewels were.
If you have never climbed an Appalachian mountain in the rain, you are in for a real treat. You see, you have to climb the mountain sideways, and instead of pointing your toes toward the mountain, you point them to the side and you climb by using the side of your foot. I had some city cousins who came to visit from Lexington quite often. I loved to beat them to the top of the mountain, and then turn around and wave to them as they gasped for breath far below me. I digress again, but not really because I have to tell you that if you ever try to climb a mountain sideways in rubber boots, it isn't easy and it isn't pretty. Boots don't have much of a grip, and they are very slick, trust me. But we finally made it to where Aunt Bett said the jewels would be, Aunt Bett surefooted, and me, well, I was a little muddier than when we started.
The rain had stopped and the sun had come out and as we turned a curve in the path ahead of us, there it was, diamonds sparkling among the green leaves and yellow flowers right in front of us. It looked like the loot from a treasure chest. We stopped while we took our rain gear off and stored it in one of the burlap bags. Aunt Bett said to me: "Thems the jewelweed that you see, and it's only found where it stays damp. It don't bloom much out in the fields, but it grows good here next to the crick where it gets a lot of moisture." There was a BUZZZZZZZZ around my head, and I looked up in time to see one of her flying emeralds land on the sparkling leaf of a jewelweed. It was a June bug (Cotinis mutabilis), its iridescent body bright green in the sunlight. Aunt Bett had prepared me for a treasure chest, and indeed, the scene in front of me was a real treasure: golden flowers, sparkling raindrops on the light green leaves and iridescent greens flitting from one leaf to another. I was not disappointed at all.
Most common in the mountains of eastern Kentucky was the jewelweed (Impatiens pallida). It was pale yellow in color and the magic of it was that its leaves repelled water. Aunt Bett knew this, so when she promised me diamonds, she was referring to the water that beaded on the surface of the leaves where the sunlight struck it, and it was sparklingly beautiful. Jewelweed is often called Touch Me Not because of its seed pod. When ripe, if you touch the seed pod it pops open and seeds burst out into your hand. I really liked that part, but on this particular morning, Aunt Bett and I were on our way to gather stems of the Jewelweed, not pop the seed pods.
Other than looking pretty, I couldn't think of a reason for collecting jewelweed, so I asked Aunt Bett what the jewelweed was to be used for. As June bugs buzzed around our heads, she told me how and why it was used. "This is the time for pizen ivy," she said, "and I need to be ready for whatever happens". "Do you boil it and make a potion," I asked. "No, I just save the fresh stem." OK, so she wasn't a big talker. We began to gather the jewelweed, and she soaked a piece of muslin that she carried with her in the creek. Once we had what she declared was enough, we laid them one by one down the length of the wet muslin, then folded the bottom up over the stems, then rolled the whole thing in to what looked like a jelly roll. The flowers were all showing, but the stems were down in the wet muslin being kept damp. The bottom of the jelly roll of jewelweed was then wrapped in an old piece of oilcloth, so that it would not dry out on our way down the mountain (oil cloth is a story for another time).
When we got to her home, she grabbed some old gray aluminum buckets and filled them half full of water from the outdoor pump. Into the buckets of water went the jewelweed, one stem at a time. The buckets full of jewelweed sitting on her back porch were quite pretty, I thought, though not as sparkly as they were on the mountain. "We'll let'em rest here till somebody comes along that needs 'em."
We didn't have long to wait. Pretty soon a young woman was walking down the road to Aunt Bett's house. She held a small child in her arms, and held the hand of another. When she got to Aunt Bett's front porch, I could see that both children had oozing rashes on their hands and arms, the youngest even had the rash across her tummy. People don't waste a lot of time on small talk in the mountains, so Aunt Bett said before the young woman could speak, "They got in the pizon ivy, I see." The young woman just nodded her head and looked down as if it were her fault. Aunt Bett just said, "Well, young'uns gotta larn sometime." She herded them around to the back porch where the fresh jewelweed rested in the buckets, grabbed some of the jewelweed and broke the top part of the stems, then handed me the blooms. She took a little pocket knife and slit the stem of the jewelweed, and began spreading its juice all over the rashes of the two little ones. No crying, no fuss, and the smallest one even smiled. I decided it must not burn or sting like some of Aunt Bett's concoctions did. The next day the woman again came down the road with the children, she carried with her a homemade apple pie which was her pay to Aunt Bett. After the "thankees" were done, Aunt Bett looked at the baby first. Her tummy, though not completely cured, was no longer oozing, nor was it red and raw looking. The bigger child let her know right away that he was "all better". Still Aunt Bett insisted on spreading more of the juice from the jewelweed on all the areas, just to make sure that it continued to heal the poison ivy. She also used it to bring relief to a bee sting on a little boy's arm later that same day, bee stings were something that happened more often that poison ivy, it seemed.
That was my first lesson in the medicinal use of jewelweed. My second lesson was much more to my liking. Aunt Bett told me if I would collect the blossoms and put them in the kettle with some boiling water, I could make a brownish yellow dye. She told me that it was so permanent that a lot of women put it on their hair to hide the gray. I have since found that jewelweed contains a dye that is also found in Henna, take heed here, Henna is used to darken skin color (tattoos) as well as hair color. Aunt Bett should never have told me about the dye.
Yep, sure as anything, I made that dye. I boiled the blossoms for quite a while, then let them sit in the hot water. Finally when I thought it was ready, I strained out the boiled blossoms, and poured the dye into small bottles that Aunt Bett had given me. I sealed them tightly and made my plans. Right about the same time, I got a new baby brother. I was almost eight when he was born, and since he required a lot of attention, less attention was paid to me. At that time Q tips were made on tiny wooden sticks, so one night before my bath, I borrowed several Q tips from my brother's paraphenalia, grabbed the bottle of dye that I had made, and hopped into the shower. I washed my hair then bathed as fast as I could, because I had a bright idea. I dried off, wrapped my head in a towel, then proceeded to use the Q tips to paint another design around my belly button, around one ankle and around my wrists. That didn't look too dark, I thought, while waiting for it to dry. From pictures in Aunt Bett stories you might remember that my hair at that time was very light blond, and in summer it got even lighter. I took the towel off my head and fluffed out the curls. I then pulled a couple of curls away from the rest of my hair and dipped them into the bottle of dye. Well, I suppose it was more than a couple. I got them as far down into the bottle as I could, and let them just soak it in till my Mother knocked on the door and asked me what was taking so long.
The next morning, when I woke up, I saw my ankles first. Oh Dear! The dye had darkened and darkened some more, an orangy brown design decorated every part that I had touched with the dye. I was afraid to look at my hair. I ran to the bathroom before anyone could see me. Sure enough, I had orangy brown curls on the right side of my head. I tried everything to hide it, braiding, pony tail, dragging the other side of my hair over to cover it, but it was still there.
I wore that henna on my ankles, wrists, and belly button for at least a month. Same with my hair. Thankfully, my mother decided the embarrassment I suffered was enough of a punishment. Little did she know that I was secretly proud of my "tattoos" and my streaked hair, even though they were rather orangy.
There is actually no real proof that jewelweed really helps heal poison ivy. But don't ever tell Aunt Bett that, she and I both saw it with our own eyes. And no one can argue with the fact that it is a very strong dye. The jewelweed in my area of the country is commonly of the yellow and orange varities, though there are other colors in other places. It's flowers attract the Ruby Throated Hummingbird, bumblebees and honeybees. The caterpillars of several moths feed on the foliage including the Pink Legged Tiger Moth. Grouse and the Bobwhite Quail feed on the large seeds, white tailed deer graze on the foliage and the white footed mouse eats the seeds. Jewelweed is also very effective in killing ringworm, and some people still use it for acne. As a poultice Aunt Bett used jewelweed on burns and warts.
And that is the story of my introduction to jewelweed. If I ever run across it again, I am going to make some more of that wonderful dye. We are never too old to add a little decoration here and there.
Photos are from Plant Files. Thanks to Begoniacrazii, PalmBob, Bootandall, Kell, and Dawndoll2.
About Sharon Brown
I am a retired high school art and humanities teacher. I grew up in the Appalachian mountains of southeast KY and now I live with my two rescued cats, Jazz and Daisy, in far western KY. I am an artist often doing commissioned work, and in addition to writing articles for Dave's Garden, I also write boating stories for a nautical magazine as well as other venues. My greatest loves are writing, painting, my 5 year old grandson, then learning the history of our numerous wildflowers in Kentucky. And, of course, there's gardening.