Mountain Mama: Jewelweed and Nature’s Antidotes

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Mountain Mama gains wisdom through edible wild plants and natural anecdotes.

Melissa kneels by a three-foot tall plant and cups its oval leaves in her hand. She plucks one at the stem and breaks it open, rubbing it between her fingers until it produces a liquid. She holds the mushed-up plant out for me to see. “The juice from jewelweed heals poison ivy.” Melissa explains how Native Americans used jewelweed to treat skin conditions for centuries. Besides poison ivy and stinging nettles, jewelweed eases okra spines, bug bites, and razor burn.

Melissa and I walk along the edge of the woods looking for edibles for an article I am writing for the print edition of Blue Ridge Outdoors. When I first met Melissa, I was intrigued by her lifestyle. She supports herself by supplementing a 14-hour-work week with creative endeavors like foraging, raising rabbits, making her own laundry detergent, and eating road kill. As I’ve gotten to know Melissa, I’m in awe of how closely her daily routine lines up with her values, how she prioritizes time with people over material acquisitions, and the way she minimizes her carbon footprint.

While Melissa talks, my brain turns over a recent text I received from a friend who’s having a hard time and asked for my wisdom. I know about suffering. We all do. But what words would I write my friend that might act as a salve to her pain? That morning my three-year old dropped his monster truck behind my bed and said a four-letter word. A week before he started calling me Ky instead of mama. I feel anything but wise.

The sound of Melissa’s voice interrupts my reverie. “Jewelweed can often be found side-by-side to poison ivy. Nature often has its own antidote.”

I look down at Melissa’s palm. At first glance, the green plant looks like a weed that I would have walked right past. Knowing its healing power makes me look at it a different way. Jewelweed’s special power feels like a secret, and knowing her secret makes jewelweed more beautiful.

I start thinking about all the times my son and I have gotten poison ivy. I hate those red blotches and the corresponding irresistible urge to itch. The risk of getting it lodges a fear about exploring the woods with abandon, leaving me more cautious. Last summer my then-toddler took a romp in it and spent the next week looking at me with bewilderment as the evil ivy’s rash covered him. Not immune to its siren call to dig his nails in and scratch, scabs covered his body for weeks.

MelissaCollage (1)

As Melissa and I walk, she points out plants while I jot down notes. It occurs to me that jewelweed owes its extraordinariness to the existence of poison ivy. Without poison ivy, jewelweed would be unremarkable, just another plant. Melissa’s words loop in my brain. “Nature has its own antidote.” Jewelweed and poison ivy might be my answer about what to write to my friend about suffering.

Without pain, we have no contrast for joy. It’s through suffering that we can really begin to appreciate the gifts nature offers us. The blackness of night lends beauty to dawn’s tentative greyish-yellow hues. Without rain, the joy of the sun’s rays go unnoticed.

The thing about suffering is that the down-on-your-knees-can’t-stop-crying moments are precisely when all the noise falls away and we are graced with the perfect clarity of what matters, what’s howling inside, grieving and hurt. Those times provide perspective about how precious life is.

I wish that I had an easy it’s-going-to-be-okay answer for my friend. Sometimes it’s not okay. Sometimes the things that happen in life crack us open, break us apart. Sometimes we never completely heal. That’s okay. The cracks create openings for us to catch the light and beauty and good.

Melissa says, “If you’re exposed to poison ivy, the best thing to do is take a jewelweed plant, slice the stem open, and rub it directly onto the exposed parts of skin.” For many, jewelweed will prevent a reaction entirely. Sometimes people still react to poison ivy, but jewelweed lessens the suffering and drastically reduces the symptoms.

The lesson of jewelweed is that nature provides its own antidote for our suffering, if only we remember to get outside and look. The antidote might not change us all at once, but we can let nature’s healing effect start with the whimsical dance of the leaves in the evening breeze, the halo around the moon, and the arc of a second rainbow fading into the distance. Get outside and let Mama Nature show you her antidotes.

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