Burgers and fries might be the go-to fast food for hungry human travelers, but for migrating hummingbirds it's jewelweed. Widespread throughout most of the U.S., jewelweed blossoms serve nutritious nectar to hordes of hummers.
By mid-September's peak migration, many nectar-rich blossoms fade; and plants redirect energy into seed production, feeding goldfinches, cardinals, and other seed lovers. But seeds offer nothing to hummingbirds.
Impatiens capensis--commonly known as orange jewelweed, common jewelweed, spotted jewelweed, spotted touch-me-not, or orange balsam--loves damp shady areas. An annual, it readily reseeds. In fact, the name "touch-me-not" comes from the seed pods that, when ripe, pop at the lightest touch, shooting seeds several feet.
Jewelweed produces two kinds of flowers. One can go unnoticed: it lacks petals, never opens, but produces most of the seed. The other, the one attractive to hummingbirds, hangs from a threadlike stem, opens with three petals, one of which forms a showy inch-long cornucopia-like shape, deep orange with red spots. Some see the flower as jewel-like.
The translucent hollow watery stalks can grow up to five feet tall, but most I've seen grow in the three- to four-foot range. As plants mature, stalks slowly harden, gaining stamina against wind.
Fortunately, Impatiens capensis is not susceptible to the powdery mildew that has devastated Impatiens walleriana, the one-time most popular shade annual in Tri-state gardens. And that's wonderful news for hummingbirds. Without jewelweed, hummers would suffer severely. (For more about downy mildew on I. walleriana, go online to http://extension.udel.edu/factsheet/downy-mildew-on-impatiens/.)
Jewelweed boasts other wonderful attributes. The stalk's watery contents have for centuries served as a common natural remedy for poison ivy, insect bites, and other skin irritations, used by Native Americans and herbalists. Soaps, salves, and sprays made from the plant boasts an apparently booming Internet market. It grows easily, reproduces readily, and faces no insect or biological threats. But the attribute I find most attractive is its ability to crowd out noxious weeds.
According to the Missouri Botanical Garden website, jewelweed is best suited for moist shade, woodland, bog, and native plant gardens, pond or stream margins or other low shady spots.
While seeds are readily available for purchase, because it's native, jewelweed tends to find its way naturally in the right habitat. For me, it's only a matter of recognizing early spring plants and giving them space. Now, they host happy hummer travelers with the avian version of burgers and fries.