Nature 101

Jewel-weed, a wildflower with many names

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The jewel-weed plant. My family called them touch-me-nots.
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Most wildflowers have more than one name, but the flower commonly called jewel-weed seems to be loaded with monikers. It must be that the exquisite and dainty blossoms make one's imagination go wild. The golden orange flowers dangle delightfully from the tips of the branches like earrings, and the plant has been called "lady's eardrops."

The dark red spots on the blossoms have added "speckled jewels" to the list.

To some, the shape of the flower appears to be a miniature shoe, so naturally the flower has been dubbed "wild lady's slipper" and "slipper weed." But Native Americans saw the shape of a bird in the blossom and they called it a "crowing cock." The flower reminds some people of other flowers and they have called it "wild snapdragon" and "cowslip."

When you take a branch of the jewel-weed and submerge it in water, the color of the leaves suddenly turns into glistering silver, giving the plant additional names like "silver leaf," "silver weed" and "shining grass."

One of the medical uses of jewel-weed has been to boil all parts of the plant in water, producing a lotion that can be placed on the skin to reduce the irritation of poison ivy. That is where its name "wild balsam" comes from.

Because of microscopic hairs on the surface of the leaves capturing a layer of air, morning dews form like sparkling beads on the leaves, christening the plant "silver cap."

The manner in which jewel-weed disperses its seeds gives the plant additional names. In late summer and early fall the seeds are held in a small capsule which, when touched, the seeds will dart out in all directions. When you are not prepared for this explosion of the nervous little seed pods, the sudden volley of flying seeds will startle you. This ingenious mechanism is caused when a coiled spring in the capsule is triggered by a touch and the seed pod erupts with lightening speed, catapulting the seeds all around.

Sandra Martin, the founder and director of the Little Nature Museum in Hopkinton, explained that the plants' dramatic scattering of its seeds has resulted in these flowers being called "spotted touch-me-nots." Other names spawned by this seed dispersion action are "kicking colt," "quick-in-the-hand" and "snap weed."

Once when I was a nature instructor in a summer camp, I took a group of campers down by a pond and showed them what happens when I waved a branch of jewel-weed in the water. Of course, the leaves all sparkled with a silver brightness. In amazement, one camper exclaimed, "That flower is a 'silver mystery.' "

Instantly, a new name was born.

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