Jewel Juice

On the very first foraging tour that I ever took with Wildman Steve Brill, I discovered a wonderful plant called jewelweed.  I had heard about this miraculous gem in various field guides, but I had never identified it growing wild before.  On the Wildman’s tour of Inwood Hill Park at the northern-most tip of Manhattan, however, we saw a beautiful stand of it growing lushly along the path.  Though I’d found it hard to get a mental picture of the plant from the various field guides, once I met it in person, I could never miss it again.  I recommend checking out the REWILD.info Field Guide entry for jewelweed, and learning how to identify this plant.

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Left: Jewelweed plant parts: (left to right) leaf, flower, seed pods, stem; Middle: Jewelweed flower; Right: Jewelweed flower

Now, what do you do with jewelweed?  Well, as the Wildman points out, you can use it as “a virtual panacea for skin irritation.”  Jewelweed probably gets the most recognition, however, for its amazing ability to prevent and treat the rash you can get from poison ivy (and its relatives poison oak and poison sumac.)  This dermatitis occurs when your skin comes in contact with urushiol — an oil secreted by these plants.

The dermatitis occurs like this:

Chemically, urushiol is harmless to humans, but when it bonds to skin cells it initiates a T-cell mediated immune response. This immune response is directed towards the complex of urushiol derivatives which are bound up in the skin proteins. The result is an allergic eczematous contact dermatitis characterized by redness, swelling, papules, vesicles, blisters, and streaking. People vary greatly in their sensitivity to urushiol. Around 15% to 30% of people are immune to the effects, although at least 25% of people have strong reactions to poison ivy. Since the skin reaction is an allergic one, people may develop an increasingly strong reaction after repeated exposures, or show no immune response on their first exposure, but show definite sensitivity on following exposures.[1]

What does that mean? Basically, the oil bonds with your skin and messes with your immune system. Because the dermatitis happens as an allergic response, not everybody responds the same way. Some people don’t break out, and others do.  However, allergies behave strangely — they come and go.

Wildman Steve Brill loves to tell the story of an old German lady who used to go on his tours who did not get a rash from poison ivy.  Whenever he introduced the plant on one of his tours, she would grab a handful of it and hold it up in the air, saying, “Eez dis vat you mean, Meester Vildman?”  For years, she enjoyed her little joke and how nervous it made Steve Brill, until eventually her immune system changed and she developed a rash.

Now, if you have heard of jewelweed before, you may have also heard the old adage “Wherever you find poison ivy, jewelweed grows close by.”  Well, that doesn’t exactly hold true.  They do happen to both inhabit one type of habitat, often simultaneously: moist bottomlands and valleys with rich soil.  But poison ivy can tolerate a far greater variety of habitats.  So, the opposite would serve as a better reminder: “Wherever you find jewelweed, poison ivy grows close by.”

I often see it growing on stream banks, in full sun or deep shade.  It likes the water, as you will note whenever you split its stems open to get at the juicy cells inside.  If you have a skin irritation, or if you think you got into some poison ivy, split the stem of the plant open with your thumbnail and rub the juice of the plant on your skin.  If you get to a bug bite quickly enough, the juice may keep it from ever itching again.  If not, you will get some temporary relief, but will need to keep reapplying jewelweed whenever it starts itching again.

Since this plant works such wonders, you would naturally want a way to preserve it so that you can use it throughout the year — or whenever you happen to go foraging in a habitat where it doesn’t grow.  The best method I have found for keeping the plant’s properties at my disposal throughout the year involves making a tincture of the jewelweed stems.

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A variety of menstruums for making tinctures: apple cider vinegar, 100 proof vodka, witch hazel.  I used only the witch hazel in making the Jewel Juice.

Normally with a tincture, you would “pickle” plant parts in a jar with vinegar or strong alcohol — usually 80 – 100 proof vodka for 6 weeks (or you can use PGA for an even faster tincture time of only 2 weeks).  According to the Wildman, Euell Gibbons tried traditional methods with making a jewelweed tincture in alcohol and had bad luck due to mold forming in the tincture.  Apparently, the moisture content of the plant can cause mold to grow.  The Wildman did some experimenting, however, and discovered that a tincture made using witch hazel astringent worked well.  He used the commercial type which you can buy at any drug store, and tinctured jewelweed stems in it for 2 weeks, shaking it twice daily.

I tried this method a few years back and ended up with a wonderful bottle of tincture that I used for any skin irritation that came along: bug bites, cuts and scrapes, suspected poison ivy contact — all to great success.  In fact, the Jewel Juice (as I call it) tamed my fierce razor burn when nothing else worked.  The little bottle of juice I made lasted for several years.  It never went bad, and it kept working until the last drop.  I kept it out of sunlight and away from heat, and it served me well.

click to enlargeSo, let’s make some jewel juice.  You will need the following:

  • witch hazel astringent
  • jewelweed
  • a knife
  • a jar

Cut the plant stems into lengths just long enough to fit in your jar.  Fill the jar as full with these as you can.  Then pour the witch hazel into the jar, up to the brim.  Seal it up, and shake it good.  Shake it twice a day, if you can remember, morning and night.  Store it in a place away from sunlight and heat — which will rob any medicinal preparation of its potency.  After two weeks, strain your tincture into a fresh, clean container.

Now you have some jewelweed to keep in your medicine cabinet for cuts and hurts around the house.  You can take it with you when you go out foraging or wildcrafting, to counter the bites of bugs and prevent poison ivy rash.  I can’t tell you how wonderfully this little bottle of juice will help you out.  You just have to try it for yourself.

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4 responses to this post.

  1. I’ll give you some “jewel juice.” ;-) Nice article.

    Reply

  2. Tincture Feature

    After reading about the Scouts’ adventure in making yarrow tincture, and after injuring my toe and needing the healing properties of comfrey, I decided to do a little wildcrafting and get some herbs together to make some tinctures and oils.
    In ca…

    Reply

  3. Posted by Giles on 07/20/2008 at 10:00 pm

    that’s very helpful , thank you. Do you have any experience or knowledge of jewel weed concoctions that involve cooking and then freezing the result ??

    Reply

  4. Giles,

    Check out Wildman Steve Brill’s book called Identifying and Harvesting Edible and Medicinal Plants in Wild (and Not So Wild) Places. You can also find a good description of the cooking process on his jewelweed page on his website:

    You can also make jewelweed ointment by simmering a small amount of jewelweed in light vegetable oil (any vegetable oil except olive oil, which burns) 10-15 minutes. Use only a small handful of jewelweed stems per quart of oil, or bubbles of jewelweed juice will form in the ointment and go moldy. Strain out the herb, add a handful of beeswax to thicken it, and heat until melted. Take out a spoonful and let it cool to test the thickness, and add more oil or beeswax as needed. Add the contents of one oil-soluble vitamin E capsule, a natural preservative, and let it cool. Refrigerated, it lasts for months.

    There are also methods that involve cooking the leaves and stems in water and then straining and freezing the “tea” in ice cube form. I believe Euell Gibbons discusses this in one of his books (probably in Stalking the Wild Asparagus or Stalking the Healthful Herbs.)

    Reply

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