Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Spilanthes--The Best of Buds for Toothache

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.

Spilanthes flowers are also a fun way to engage people in herbalism. The experience is unforgettable, so it's a great teaching tool. Just watching the facial expressions as people munch one of these buds down is really entertaining. Anyone who expresses doubt about the power of herbs can often be silenced by a single flower. And what's more, you're actually doing that person a favor, because Spilanthes is super good for you--even if you don't have a toothache.

But Wait, There's More!

The Spilanthes plant isn't just nature's toothbrush and a party favor--it treats a whole host of other ailments as well. Spilanthes helps all manner of oral issues, from stomatitis (inflammation of the mouth) and sore throats to dry mouth (as it also boosts saliva production). The tincture can be diluted to tolerance and used as a cleansing mouthwash or gargle.

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!


  1. I started my plants in early spring and since the temps spiked up here in Richmond, VA in mid May, I have tons of flowers now. I chewed my first flower last week. That's a pretty "cool" sensation. I'm just finding out now about all it's other medicinal uses. Thanks!!

  2. I have a huge harvest of these flowers! How do you store them and is it ok to let them dry out?

  3. How do you store the flowers? I have a ton and don't know what to do with them!

    1. Hi Erin! That's great! You can definitely dry them and store them in an airtight jar (like Mason jars). Keep out of the sun and Spilanthes will stay potent for about a year like that. Or you could always make a tincture, which would last much longer. Hope this helps!

  4. Can you just leave them out to dry inside your house? We live in AZ so its very dry here

    1. Yeah! Just keep them out of direct sunlight. I would put them on a paper towel or screen in a place with plenty of airflow.

  5. Replies
    1. Hi Wendy! Here is a nice guide for making tinctures:

      With Spilanthes, you can tincture the entire flowering plant--leaves, stems, flowers, roots and all.

  6. This is a fine article but I just wanted to let you know that we have buds that are more than 5 years old and still have the numbing effect. It may take longer whilest chewing on them for it to "appear" but it is definitely still very potent. I'm going to go see if making a tea with it will be useful as a mouthwash....

  7. Where do you get this plant? Do you have to grow from seed or can it be purchased?

    1. Hi Cathy,

      It looks like most of the large herb companies don't sell dried spilanthes, but instead opt to sell the extracts. However, I did a quick internet search and discovered a few small-scale sellers of dried spilanthes. One is on Etsy, and another can be found at this link:

      I'm sure there are more out there if you keep digging.