Plant names can be descriptive, deceptive and sometimes obscure. In the case of spotted touch-me-not, the name suggests menace, as if spines or other nasty surprises await the curious. Not so – this is a benevolent and useful plant. The ‘touch-me-not’ refers to what happens when a ripe seed pod is touched; it opens explosively, scattering seeds in all directions. Other names include jewelweed, perhaps because of the brightly-coloured flowers, and Lady’s earrings. Scientifically, it is Impatiens capensis, the impatient one of the cape. There are other Impatiens species on the Island, but capensis is by far the most common.
This is a fairly tall (up to 1.7 m – 5.5ft) annual, found in masses in wet areas, ditches, stream banks. It usually grows in partial to full shade, although it can tolerate sunlight. The stem is rather succulent and weak. Leaves of the touch-me-not are alternate, long and thin, coarsely toothed. This plant flowers profusely over a four to five month period, from early summer to late fall. The flowers themselves are complicated. They dangle from long stalks, with three petals and an enlarged sepal which serves as a nectar sac. Flower colour is variable, usually golden to orange, with reddish-brown spots. The fruits ripen over quite a long period, so the little explosive pods can be found almost anytime.
This species is native to eastern North America and is common as far west as Saskatchewan. If you follow almost any stream here on the Island you will encounter ‘the impatient one’ waiting for you to help its in seed dispersal – I cannot pass without touching a few pods. It is easily grown from seed and will keep itself going in any wet, shaded area with decent soil – ideal around pond edges and stream-lets, where its dense habit provides cover for many amphibians, reptiles, small mammals and even birds. It is a nectar plant, very attractive to butterflies and humming birds, and thus a great addition to a wild garden.
To close on a medicinal note, Touch-me not has been used by many cultures as first aid against poison ivy attacks, insect stings and skin inflammations of various sorts – the whole plant is crushed and the watery juice smeared on irritated areas. Works for me on bee stings!