Jewel-weed, Wild Balsam – Flowers

(Impatiens biflora) Jewel-weed family

(I. fulva of Gray)

Flowers—Orange yellow, spotted with reddish-brown, irregular, 1 in. long or less, horizontal, 2 to 4 pendent by slender footstalks on a. long peduncle from leaf axils. Sepals, 3, colored; 1 large, sac-shaped, contracted into a slender in-curved spur and 2-toothed at apex ; 2 other sepals small. Petals, 3 ; 2 of them 2-cleft into dissimilar lobes ; 5 short stamens, r pistil. Stem : 2 to 5 ft. high, smooth, branched, colored, succulent. Leaves : Alternate, thin, pale beneath, ovate, coarsely toothed, petioled. Fruit: An oblong capsule, its 5 valves opening elastically to expel the seeds.

Preferred Habitat—Beside streams, ponds, ditches; moist ground. Flowering Season—July—October.

Distribution—Nova Scotia to Oregon, south to Missouri and Florida.

These exquisite, bright flowers, hanging at a horizontal, like jewels from a lady’s ear, may be responsible for the plant’s folk name ; but whoever is abroad early on a dewy morning, or after a shower, and finds notched edges of the drooping leaves hung with scintillating gems, dancing, sparkling in the sunshine, sees still another reason for naming this the jewel-weed. In a brook, pond, spring, or wayside trough, which can never be far from its haunts, dip a spray of the plant to transform the leaves into glistening silver. They shed water much as the nasturtium’s do.

When the tiny ruby-throated humming bird flashes northward out of the tropics to spend the summer, where can he hope to find nectar so deeply secreted that not even the long-tongued bumblebee may rob him of it all? Beyond the bird’s bill his tongue can be run out and around curves no other creature can reach. Now the early blooming columbine, its slender cornucopias brimming with sweets, welcomes the messenger whose needle-like bill will carry pollen from flower to flower ; presently the coral honeysuckle and the scarlet painted-cup attract him by wearing his favorite color ; next the jewel-weed hangs horns of plenty to lure his eye ; and the trumpet vine and cardinal flower continue to feed him successively in Nature’s garden; albeit cannas, nasturtiums, salvia, gladioli, and such deep, irregular showy flowers in men’s flower beds sometimes lure him away. These are bird flowers dependent in the main on the ruby-throat, which is not to say that insects never enter them, for they do ; only they are not the visitors catered to. Watch the big, velvety bumblebee approach a roomy jewel-weed blossom and nearly disappear within. The large bunch of united stamens, suspended directly over the entrance, bears copious white pollen. So much comes off on his back that after visiting a flower or two he becomes annoyed ; clings to a leaf with his fore legs while he thoroughly brushes his back and wings with his middle and hind pairs, and then collects the sticky grains into a wad on his feet which he presently kicks off with disgust to the ground. Examine a jewel-weed blossom to see that the clumsy bumblebee’s pollen-laden back is not so likely to come in contact with the short five-parted stigma concealed beneath the stamens, as a humming bird’s slender bill that is thrust obliquely into the spur while he hovers above.

But, as if the plant had not sufficient confidence in its visitors to rely exclusively on them for help in continuing the lovely species, it bears also cleistogamous blossoms that never open economical products without petals, which ripen abundant self-fertilized seed (see p. 108). It is calculated that each jewel-weed blossom produces about two hundred and fifty pollen grains ; yet each is by no means able to produce seed in spite of its prodigality. Nevertheless, enough cross-fertilized seed is set to save the species from the degeneracy that follows close inbreeding among plants as well as animals. In England, where this jewel-weed is rapidly becoming naturalized, Darwin recorded there are twenty plants producing cleistogamous flowers to one having showy blossoms which, even when produced, seldom set seed. What more likely, since humming birds are confined to the New World ? Therefore why should the plant waste its energy on a product useless in England ? It can never attain perfection there until humming birds are imported, as bumblebees had to be into Australia before the farmers could harvest seed from their clover fields.

Familiar as we may be with the nervous little seed pods of the touch-me-not, which children ever love to pop and see the seeds fly, as they do from balsam pods in grandmother’s garden, they still startle with the suddenness of their volley. Touch the delicate hair-trigger at the end of a capsule, and the lightning response of the flying seeds makes one jump. They sometimes land four feet away. At this rate of progress a year, and with the other odds against which all plants have to contend, how many generations must it take to fringe even one mill pond with jewel-weed; yet this is rapid transit indeed compared with many of Nature’s processes. The plant is a conspicuous sufferer from the dodder.

The Pale Touch-me-not (I. aurea)—1. pallida of Gray—most abundant northward, a larger, stouter species found in similar situations, but with paler yellow flowers only sparingly dotted if at all, has its broader sac-shaped sepal abruptly contracted into a short, notched, but not incurved spur. It shares its sister’s popular names.