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Spotted Touch-me-not

Updated: Oct 11, 2023

There’s a pretty, useful, and downright fun plant flowering along PEI’s streams right now. Meet Spotted Touch-me-not (Impatiens capensis).

Gardeners are likely familiar with Impatiens, a highly popular annual that brightens up flower beds and window boxes with its broad range of colours. Our native Touch-me-not is in the same genus but looks very different. There are a couple of other, related garden plants that resemble it more closely – Himalayan Balsam (aka Policeman’s Helmet, Impatiens glandulifera) and Small-flowered Jewelweed (Impatiens parviflora) – but both are highly invasive species. If you have them on your property, I’d strongly recommend getting rid of them (NOT in your compost).

Photo 1: The jewel-like flower of our native Spotted Touch-me-not (Impatiens capensis).

Spotted Touch-me-not is also known as Jewelweed, and when you see it in the sun you can understand why (Photo 1). While it does have a jewel-like aura, I find the delicate flowers always remind me of Goldfish. “Touch-me-not” is also an excellent descriptor. This plant is perfectly safe to touch (no thorns, prickles, or rash-causing chemicals here) but its seed pods (Photo 2) hold a surprise. Inside each is a tiny, coiled spring. When the pods are mature, the slightest touch will cause the spring to expand and explosively propel the seeds. This happens fast – in a fraction of a second – but you can see the end result in Photo 3. Plants have so many cool ways to disperse their seeds. Touch-me-not’s method of ballistic dispersal is one of the coolest and can toss seeds metres away from the parent. It’s also really, really fun to pop those pods!

Photo 2: The seed pods of Spotted Touch-me-not. They explode when touched to ballistically disperse the seeds (see Photo 3).

So we’ve covered pretty and fun, but what about useful? Those seeds are edible and taste exactly like walnuts. Unfortunately, it’s not practical to collect them in any quantity, and so Touch-me-not seeds are more of a trailside nibble than a truly useful food. A more significant benefit is this plant’s traditional use to relieve Poison Ivy rashes and insect bites and stings. Crushing the leaves and stems and applying the resulting juice to the affected area is effective, but modern research has been divided over whether it’s any more effective than just washing the area with soap as quickly as you can. That said, I’m far more likely to have access to Spotted Touch-me-not during encounters with Poison Ivy or insects than I am to have a bar of soap!

Photo 3: An exploded seed pod of Spotted Touch-me-not. Most of the seeds were propelled away, but you can see two that landed between my fingers, as well as the light-coloured, unfurled coil that provided the energy for the propulsion.

The lovely and native Spotted Touch-me-not is common in freshwater areas across PEI. Keep your eye out for it as you explore PEI untamed!

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