Spilanthes is a small plant, growing only about a foot tall under the best conditions, with small composite flowers of red and yellow that resemble tiny targets. But this unassuming little herb packs a hefty punch. It lives up to its common name Toothache Plant as one of the best remedies for this painful problem. Toothaches are awful--they disrupt everyday functions like eating and speaking, and they typically stem from an infection, which can become quite serious.
A Taste Sensation
I discovered Spilanthes at a class taught by herbalist Tyler Wauters during my internship with Herb Pharm. Tyler passed around the small dried flower buds, encouraging us to taste them. But when it comes to Spilanthes, it's not so much a taste as it is a sensation--or rather, an explosion. Your mouth becomes a fireworks display as the intense tingling sensation takes over, followed by numbness. But it's not unpleasant--actually it's pretty fun. As one class member said, "It is dancing inside my mouth!" Others have compared it to Pop Rocks candy. Oddly, it also makes water taste colder somehow, even for a while after you've swallowed the flower.
The only drawback is when you bite off more than you can chew--if you get a particularly strong bud, it becomes a little hard to talk. I've had instances where my swallowing reflex gets going, so that's all I can do for about 30 seconds. If this happens to you during your herbal adventures, do not panic. It will pass shortly. Just don't pop in a bud right before a speaking engagement, and you'll be fine.
In fact, my only real regret with Spilanthes is not learning about it sooner. Years ago, I suffered through at least one sleepless night dealing with a massive toothache, which in all likelihood could have been nipped in the bud by Spilanthes. Even now, these flowers are my best buds, helping immensely with a couple of wisdom teeth that need to come out. As soon as I get a hint of trouble, I pop in a flower. Sometimes I even sleep with a bud in my mouth. (It's kind of an odd reverse tooth fairy ritual, I suppose.)
In all seriousness, Spilanthes is a powerful gift from Gaia. The beauty of this plant is that its medicinal effects go way beyond dulling the ache. While it tingles you into an ecstatic state, Spilanthes is also working to clean the bacteria from your mouth, including infected teeth. I like to keep a packet of dried flowers in my purse and chew one or two after meals. Think of it as nature's toothbrush.
But Wait, There's More!
If you've ever gotten a good dose of potent Echinacea tincture, then you know the tingling sensation it produces. Spilanthes has similar compounds, which boost the immune system while making you tingle. (Seriously, how many conventional cold medicines do that?) So, it's a good idea to use this plant any time you feel like you're getting a cold and also throughout the year as prevention. As an antibacterial, it can be used as a general infection fighter, both internally and externally. Due to its anti-fungal and anti-viral properties, Spilanthes also battles candida, thrush, herpes, and cold sores. It is even effective on ringworm and athlete's foot.
|By ~ggvic~ via Wikimedia Commons|
This herb also enhances the digestion, which is another good reason to take it after meals. In some cultures, Spilanthes is used as a food or spice. The leaves can be eaten raw in salads, or cooked into dishes such as soups. In recent years, the flowers (sometimes called Szechuan buttons or electric buttons by the food industry) have been used in the United States as a flavor-enhancer for competitive chefs and gourmet restaurants.
Growing and Harvesting
The entire Spilanthes plant, from root to flower, has medicinal value. Even better, it's fairly easy to grow in the garden. Spilanthes is a perennial in its native tropical environments, but in temperate zones it can be grown as an annual. Give it good soil and plenty of sunlight, and water it regularly. Once its blossoms appear, they are like the gift that keeps on giving. You can pinch the buds off periodically, and they keep growing back right up until it frosts. The flowers tend to lose their potency after about a year in storage, so it's best to grow this plant every year if possible.
My preferred method is to get a few good flower harvests in over the course of the summer, and then tincture the entire plant while the leaves are still verdant and juicy. That way, I have both tincture and flowers in my apothecary throughout the year. When I finally got around to making Spilanthes tincture this year, I was amazed that after a while of chopping the plant matter, my hands were tingling. Up until that point, I'd thought the sensation was confined to the mouth. Try it for yourself--it's amazing stuff!