A Jewel of a Distraction

It feels like fall. And with that, in-person school started back up in St. George this week.

With the world still “COVIDized,” my being married to a teacher means keeping things tight. We—that is, my family—all agree that we don’t want to be the ones who mess things up COVID-wise.

This, of course, means maintaining the effort to “keep it local.” Fortunately, time in the yard and neighborhood continues to be time well spent. After a summer of spectacular flowers, pollinators, and spiders, followed by raspberries and blackberries and other fruits of the pollinators’ labor, I wondered: could the yard really maintain the high level of entertainment and energy? Is there a down period, or maybe a slow time, even for a couple of weeks?

Looking for distractions in the backyard

Every year is different, for sure, but as it there’s a special orangey-yellow something keeping the pollen and nectar speedball rolling into fall.

You may think I am talking about goldenrods (genus – solidago; composite family – asteraceae). While we’d like to honor the show they put on now and through the fall, this column is not about goldenrods or the 23+ species of solidago that one might come across in the Northeast. (We’ll only mention that they are very attractive to monarchs as the butterflies make their multi-generational movement to Mexico. Goldenrods are a story for another day.)


As it turns out, orange touch-me-nots (Impatiens capensis), lovingly known as jewelweed, are the flowers outside my window that have been distracting me during recent zoom meetings. Or I should say, all the activity at the jewelweeds has been fun to watch the last few weeks. It’s easy to spot the action when a hummingbird or bee is at a jewelweed flower, as the bloom plant sways in the wind.

The jewelweed is good for distraction – and pain relief

I was introduced to the jewelweed 25 years ago while working at an environmental education program in Ohio called Nature’s Classroom. Sometimes I’d play called “camouflage” with the kids, and, one day in the fall of ’95, a 5th grade student came running at me mid-game, full-speed and screaming her head off.

At first, I thought it was the worst hiding effort I had ever seen. Then saw that she was holding her arm in pain. Fortunately, her arm wasn’t broken (that would have been the worst game of camouflage ever). Rather, she’d rubbed up against a small plant and felt immediate pain.

I recognized the plant as stinging nettle (Urtica dioica). (Side note: if you’re going to lead hikes, learn to recognize poison ivy and stinging nettle.) Anyway, during training Gail Doyle (the Gail Doyle) had mentioned ever so briefly that when smooshed, the base of a jewelweed stalk gives off a soothing gel similar to aloe. We raced to the jewelweed patch, squished up some stalk, and she rubbed it on her arm. The pain was gone as quickly as it showed up and I was the hero. By now, I consider the plant an old friend.  

Epic seed dispersal tactics make for a good time

The touch-me-not family (Balsaminaceae) is named after, and probably most famous for, their method of seed dispersal. After pollination, a straight, elongated oval seed capsule forms that is held under great tension. When hit by a wing, a stick, or sometimes simply a gust of wind, the capsule will split and coil, ejecting seeds as far as three feet. Kids love to help with the seed dispersal of jewelweed, and having the capsule twist in between your fingers is pretty cool, actually. See, plants can be cool!

Jewelweed seed

But it isn’t jewelweed’s soothing gel or exploding seed capsules that have been distracting me lately. It’s the hummingbirds. Ruby-throateds to be more precise. Mostly female and juvenile ruby-throateds to be even more precise.

A jewelweed plant is a prime place to spot hummingbirds!

These hummingbirds absolutely love orange jewelweed flowers, which apparently can pump out 2.5 milliliters of nectar a day at 40 percent sugar. Doesn’t sound like much, but for a hummingbird visiting a ton of these flowers, that’s a great deal. Multiple times an hour the orange blossoms can be seen shaking and dancing in the breezes the hummingbirds make with their wings.

Ruby-throated hummingbird

Favorite hummingbird perches are too many to count around this nectar world, all right out my window. I just saw one as I was typing – I swear! It’s awesome! Distracted by a hummingbird at a jewelweed flower while typing a column about being distracted by hummingbirds at jewelweed flowers. Destiny…. 

I don’t think I have ever watched a hummingbird at a flower before, much less seen them take on a jewelweed colony! (I know, what have I been doing all these years?) I’ve appreciated the jewelweed for its gel and seed dispersal, and to see that hummingbirds dig it too is an added bonus to the plant’s resume. It’s only Zoom meetings that suffer here, and that’s only if you look at it the wrong way. Jewelweed makes Zoom better!

See you out there!

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