Friday, August 29, 2014

Poultice Power: How to Treat Poison Ivy (and Other Itchy Situations) with Jewelweed

While stuck indoors during a cold winter, I often fantasize about summer--swimming, gardening, sunbathing...ahh. I imagine myself with the healthy glow that can only come from sweat and sunshine. But what I tend to forget is how my skin actually gets in the summer time--full of itchy, red bug bites! Muggy Indiana is host to many biting and stinging things, and this year I’m not sure I’ve escaped a single one of them.

This month, I've also had occasion to remember what Poison Ivy is like. Having not had it in years, I wasn’t even sure if I was sensitive to it anymore. But a couple weeks ago, I brazenly walked through the woods barefooted. (The part of me that thinks I’m a fairy thought this was a great idea.) I was rewarded for my earthy ways with a rash on my foot, and for two nights in a row I kept waking up in the middle of the night scratching. I'm sure many of you know the drill.

Jewelweed Flower


For years, I’ve heard about using Jewelweed to treat Poison Ivy. These two plants often grow side by side in the wild, which helps out in a couple of ways. For one thing, the presence of Jewelweed can warn you to be on the lookout for Poison Ivy, which is far less conspicuous. One the other hand, if you’ve already succumbed to Poison Ivy rash, you can sometimes return to the scene of the crime and find your antidote. Thank you, Mother Nature! Even the fool-hardy fairies among us can still find salvation.

The Jewelweed in my area is usually of the spotted, orange variety (Impatiens capensis), though occasionally I’ll find Pale Jewelweed, which instead has yellow flowers. The plants reach heights of 3-5 feet tall and tend to grow in shady spots. According to Bradford Angier in the Field Guide to Medicinal Wild Plants, “all five of our native species grow in similarly moist habitats and can be used interchangeably regardless of flower color.” That makes it easy. And the pendant-like flowers are very unique, so you probably won't mistake this plant.

Touch Me Not?

Jewelweed also goes by the name Touch Me Not, because the seed pods explode when touched. In my opinion, however, this line of thinking is all wrong. First of all, what plant doesn’t want to spread its seeds? By creating this ingenious seed pod design, nature has endowed Jewelweed with the ability to pop its seeds up to three feet away any time an animal brushes up against it. Pod-popping is also a favorite past time for children (and adults who haven’t lost their sense of wonder for nature). It’s downright joyful.

Jewelweed Pods
Rather than a grumpy curmudgeon who doesn’t like to be touched, I like to think of Jewelweed as more of a people person. You can almost hear the soft, tinkling bell of a laugh when you pop a seed pod open.  Or perhaps it’s a sigh of pleasure, or even relief. In any case, it is my assertion that Jewelweed likes to be touched--otherwise, why would it make the prospect so tempting? I hereby declare that we henceforth deem the alternate name of Jewelweed to be Touch Me Now.

After all, this name would also fit with the service it does for humankind--by taking away the itch, Jewelweed helps us return to place of comfort in our bodies so that we can again enjoy being touched.

How it Works

Jewelweed is a plant with antihistamine, anti-inflammatory, and steroidal compounds. This explains its healing power not only for Poison Ivy rash, but for all kinds of itchy skin scenarios: Poison Oak, Poison Sumac, Stinging Nettle rash, eczema, even insect bites and stings. If I’d only known the extended list of treatable ailments at the beginning of the summer!

It's best to treat any plant-induced rash right away. This helps prevent it from getting worse and spreading as you scratch. Plus, who wouldn’t want to treat something that uncomfortable right away? It just makes sense.

Jewelweed Leaves
Because the fresh juice of the plant is the most potent part, and because it was quick and easy, I opted to use a Jewelweed poultice on my Poison Ivy rash. And let me tell you--it worked wonders! After a few minutes, the itching started to subside. After a few hours, the symptoms stopped completely and never came back. I will give instructions on making a poultice next, but first I wanted to mention a couple of other ways to use this plant:

-Drinking the tea as a preventive measure. I’ve not tried it myself, but it might be worth it if you’re someone who gets rashes every summer. Plus, if I had a bad case of Poison Ivy, I'd be drinking the tea and treating it externally at the same time.

-Freezing the tea into ice cubes to hold on the rash. I imagine this would feel glorious!

-Juicing the plant. It occurs to me that, like summer, Jewelweed doesn’t stick around all year. Yet it is possible to get Poison Ivy by touching a leafless vine in the winter. For those who are very sensitive, it would be a good idea to preserve this plant to use year-round. Because the medicine is concentrated in the juice, I thought it would be a good idea to stick this plant in the juicer (or put it in the blender and squeeze out the juice through cheesecloth). Then you could preserve it by adding about 20% alcohol, and keep it in the fridge as an added measure. Or, you could freeze the juice into ice cubes and bag them up in the freezer.

Making a Jewelweed Poultice

The texts say that the steams and leaves hold the medicine of this plant. Personally, I cut about 3-4 inches from the flowering tops. This did stain my skin orange (and it's still orange, days later), but I didn’t care--Calamine lotion would have had a similar effect. But if you’re concerned, you can always just use the green parts of the plant.

Now, add a little water and mash up the plant material with a mortar and pestle or in a blender. Place it on your skin and bind it there with a bandage. (Or, if you're dealing with a small bite or sting, you can always just pluck a single leaf from the plant, chew it up, and slap it on.) Because poultices work best when kept wet, I recently discovered (okay, it was my dad’s idea) that you can wrap it first with plastic cling wrap and then bind it with a bandage or cloth. That keeps the juice in better and helps prevent staining your clothes, sheets, etc. 

I kept the first poultice on for 2-3 hours, and then took it off to shower. Afterwards, I made a new poultice and kept it on for another few hours. I took it off before bed, and it was like a miracle. I slept through the night peacefully, and it hasn’t bothered me since. It’s been less than a week, and now there is only one little area of redness. But there has been no itching--repeat, NO itching--since my encounter with this precious plant, Jewelweed. What a jewel, indeed!
Jewelweed Double Flower

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