Gateway to the Classics: Wild-Flower Study by Anna Botsford Comstock
Wild-Flower Study by  Anna Botsford Comstock

The Jewelweed, or Touch-me-not

Teacher's Story

"Cup bearer to the summer, this floral Hebe shy

Is loitering by the brookside as the season passes by;

And she's strung her golden ewers with spots of brown all flecked,

O'er dainty emerald garments, like a queen with gems bedecked.

She brooks not condescension from mortal hand, you know,

For, touch her e'er so gently, impatiently she'll throw

Her tiny little jewels, concealed in pockets small

Of her dainty, graceful garment, and o'er the ground they fall."

—Ray Laurence

dropcap image EWELS for the asking at the brookside, pendant jewels of pale-gold or red-gold and of strange design! And the pale and the red are different in design, although of the same general pattern. The pale ones seem more simple and open, and we may study them first. If the flowers of the jewelweed have been likened to ladies' earrings, then the bud must be likened to the old-fashioned ear-bob; for it is done up in the neatest little triangular knob imaginable, with a little curly pig-tail appendage at one side, and protected above by two cup-shaped sepals, their pale green seeming like enamel on the pale gold of the bud. It is worth while to give a glance at the stem from which this jewel hangs; it is so delicate and so gracefully curved; and just above the twin sepals is a tiny green bract, elongate, and following the curve of the stem as if it were just a last artistic touch; and though the flowers fall, this little bract remains to keep guard above the seed-pod.

It would take a Yankee, very good at guessing, to make out the parts of this flower, so strange are they in form. We had best begin by looking at the blossom from the back side. The two little, greenish sepals are lifted back like butterfly wings, and we may guess from their position that there are two more sepals, making four in all. These latter are yellow; one is notched at the tip and is lifted above the flower; the other is below and is made into a wide-mouthed triangular sac, ending in a quirl at the bottom, which, if we test it, we shall find is the nectary, very full of sweetness. Now, if we look the flower in the face, perhaps we can find the petals; there are two of them "holding arms" around the mouth of the nectar-sac. And stiff arms they are too, two on a side, for each petal is two-lobed, the front lobe being very short and the posterior lobe widening out below into a long frill, very convenient for the bee to cling to, if she has learned the trick, when prospecting the nectar-sac behind for its treasure. The way this treasure-sac swings backward from its point of attachment above when the insect is probing it, must make the lady bee feel that the joys of life are elusive. Meanwhile, what is the knob projecting down above the entrance to the nectar-sac, as if it were a chandelier in a vestibule? If we look at it with a lens, we can see that it is made up of five chubby anthers, two in front, one at each side and one behind; their short, stout little filaments are crooked just right to bring the anthers together like five closed fingers holding a fist full of pollen-dust, just ready to sift it on the first one that chances to pass below. Thus it is that Madame Bumblebee, who dearly loves the nectar from these flowers, gets her back well dusted with the creamy-white pollen and does a great business for the jewelweed in transferring it. But after the pollen is shed, some day the bumblebee pushes up too hard against the anthers and they break loose, all in a bunch, looking like a crooked legged table; and there in their stead, thus left bare and ready for pollen, is the long green pistil with its pointed stigma ready to rake the pollen out of the fur of any bumblebee that calls.

The red-gold jewelweed is quite different in shape from the pale species. The sepal-sac is not nearly so flaring at the mouth, and the nectar-spur is half as long as the sac and curves and curls under in a most secretive fashion. The shape of the nectar-spur suggests that it was meant for an insect with a long, flexible sucking tube that could curl around and probe it to the bottom; and some butterflies do avail themselves of the contents of this bronze pitcher. Mr. Mathews mentions the Papilio troilus,  and I have seen the yellow roadside butterfly partaking of the nectar. Professor Robertson believes that the form of the nectar-spur is especially adapted for the hummingbird. But I am sure that the flowers which I have had under observation are the special partners of a small species of bumblebee, which visits these flowers with avidity, celerity, and certainty, plunging into the nectar-sac "like a shot," and out again and in again so rapidly that the eye can hardly follow. One day, one of them accommodatingly alighted on a leaf near me, while she combed from her fur a creamy-white mass of pollen, which matched in color the fuzz on her back, heaping it on her leg baskets. She seemed to know that the pollen was on her back, and it was comical to see her contortions to get it off. The action of these bumblebees in these flowers is in marked contrast to those of the large bumblebees and the honey-bees. One medium-sized species of bumblebee has learned the trick of embracing with the front legs the narrow, stiff portion of the petals which encircles the opening to the sac, thus holding the flower firm while thrusting the head into the sac. While the huge species—black with very yellow plush—does not attempt to get the nectar in a legitimate manner, but systematically alights, back downward, below the sac of the flower, with head toward the curved spur, and cuts open the sac for the nectar. A nectar-robber of the most pronounced type! The honey-bees, Italian hybrids, are the most awkward in their attempts to get nectar from these flowers; they attempt to alight on the expanded portion of the petals and almost invariably slide off between the two petals. They then circle around and take observations with a note of determination in their buzzing, and finally succeed, as a rule, in gaining a foothold and securing the nectar. But the midget bumblebees show a savoir faire  in probing the orange jewelweed that is convincing; they are so small that they are quite out of sight when in the nectar-sacs.

The jewelweed flowers of the pale species and the pale flowers of the orange species—for this latter has sometimes pale yellow flowers—are not invariably marked with freckles in the nectar-sac. But the most common forms are thus speckled. There is something particularly seductive to insects in these brownish or reddish flecks, and wherever we find them in flowers, we may with some confidence watch for the insects they were meant to allure. The orange jewelweed flower is a model for an artist in its strange, graceful form and its color combination of yellow spotted and marbled with red.

Gray's Manual states that in the jewelweeds are often flowers of two sorts: "The large ones which seldom ripen seeds, and very small ones which are fertilized early in the bud, their floral envelopes never expanding but forced off by the growing pod and carried upward on its apex." My jewelweed patch has not given me the pleasure of observing these two kinds of flowers; my plants blossom luxuriously and profusely, and a large proportion of the flowers develop seed. The little, straight, elongated seed-pods are striped prettily and become quite plump from the large seeds within them. Impatiens? We should say so! This pod which looks so smug and straight-laced that we should never suspect it of being so touchy, at the slightest jar when it is ripe, splits lengthwise into five ribbon-like parts, all of which tear loose at the lower end and fly up in spirals around what was once the tip of the pod, but which now looks like a crazy little turbine wheel with five arms. And meanwhile, through this act the fat, wrinkled seeds have been flung, perhaps several feet away from the parent plant, and presumably to some congenial place for growth the following spring. This surprising method of throwing its seeds is the origin of the popular name touch-me-not, and the scientific name Impatiens  by which these plants are known.

The jewelweed has other names—celandine and silver-leaf, and ladies' ear-drop. It is an annual with a slight and surface-spreading growth of roots, seeming scarcely strong enough to anchor the branching stems, did not the plants have the habit of growing in a community, each helping to support its neighbor. The stem is round, hollow and much swollen at the joints; it is translucent, filled with moisture, and its outer covering is a smooth silken skin, which may be readily stripped off. Both species of jewelweed vary in the color of their stems, some being green, others red and some dark purple; and all the differing colors may be found within a few yards of each other.

The leaves are alternate, dark green above and a lighter shade below, ovate in form with scalloped edges, with midrib and veins very prominent beneath and depressed on the upper side; they are smooth on both sides to the unaided eye, but with a lens a film of fine, short hairs may be seen, particularly on the under side. When plunged beneath clear water, they immediately take on the appearance of burnished silver; when removed, no drop remains on their surface.

The flower stems spring from the axils of the leaves and are very slender and thread-like, and the flowers nod and swing with every breeze. They grow in open, drooping clusters, few blossoms open at a time, and with buds and seed-capsules present in various stages of growth.

The jewelweed is involuntarily most hospitable, and always houses many uninvited guests, as well as the bee-callers which are invited. Galls are formed on the leaves and flowers; the hollow stems are inhabited by stalk-borers; leaf-miners live between the upper and under surfaces of the leaves, making curious arabesque patterns and initials as if embroidering milady's green gown.

Lesson CXLV

The Jewelweed, or Touch-me-not

Leading thought—The jewelweed may be found by the brookside, in swamps, or in any damp and well-shaded area. It is provided with a remarkable contrivance for scattering its seeds far afield. It has no liking for open sunny places, unless very damp. There are two kinds, often found growing together, though the spotted touch-me-not (Impatiens biflora)  is said to be more widely distributed than its relative—the golden, or pale, touch-me-not (Impatiens aurea).

Method—The jewelweeds should be studied where they are growing; but if this is impracticable, a large bouquet of both kinds (if possible), bearing buds, blossoms, and seed-capsules, and one or two plants with roots, may be brought to the schoolroom.

In the fields the children may see how well the plant is provided with means to sustain itself in its chosen ground, and thus lead them to look with keener eyes at other common weeds.


1. Do you think the jewelweed is an annual, sustaining life in its seeds during winter, or do its roots survive?

2. Do the roots strike deeply into the soil, or spread near the surface?

3. Study the stem; is it hard and woody or juicy and translucent, rough or smooth, solid or hollow?

4. Note the shape and position of the leaves; do they grow opposite or alternately on the stalk? Are their edges entire, toothed or scalloped? Do they vary in color on upper and lower surface? Are they smooth or in the least degree rough or hairy? Plunge a plant under clear water in a good light and observe the beautiful transformation. Does the water cling to the leaves?

5. Where do the flower-stems spring from the main stalk? Do the flowers grow singly or in clusters? Do the blossoms all open at nearly the same time or form a succession of bud, flower and seed on the same stem?

6. Study the parts of the flower. Find the four sepals and describe the shape and position of each. Describe the nectar-sac in the nectar-horn. Can you find the two petals? Can you see that each petal has a lobe near where it joins the stem? Find the little knob hanging down above the entrance of the nectar-sac; of what is it composed? Look at it with a lens, and tell how many stamens unite to make the knob. Where is the pollen and what is its color? What insect do you think could reach the nectar at the bottom of the spurred sac? Could any insect get at the nectar without rubbing its back against the flat surface of the pollen boxes? What remains after the stamens fall off? Describe how the bees do the work of pollenation of the jewelweeds. Write or tell as a story your own observations on the actions of the different bees visiting these flowers.

7. Carefully observe a seed-capsule without touching it; can you see the lines of separation between its sections? How many are there? What happens when the pod is touched? Are the loosened sections attached at the stem, or at the apex of the pod? Hold a pod at arm's length when discharging its contents and measure the distance to which the seeds are thrown. Of what use is this habit of seed-throwing to the plant?

8. Describe the differences in shape and color between the pale yellow and the orange jewelweeds. Watch to see if the same insects visit both. Which species do you think is best suited to the bumblebees?

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