Botanical Name: Spilanthes acmella, Spilanthes oleracea, Acmella oleracea.
It was Nicolaus Joseph von Jacquin, an Austrian scientist, who in 1793 constructed and named the genus Spilanthes.
The name Spilanthes is formed from the Greek words “spilos” meaning spot and “anthos” meaning flowers, due to the reddish spot on the top of the plant’s inflorescence.
There are two plants (Spilanthes acmella and Spilanthes oleracea) that are commonly referred to as toothache plant or sometimes paracress, a name deriving from Pará, a state in northern Brazil where the plants are widely cultivated.
The species differ slightly in size and color. Spilanthes oleracea has inflorescence with reddish hue on top, grows larger and has fewer flowers than Spilanthes acmella.
Botanists had for a long time believed that these plants were just two varieties belonging to the same species and in 1985 after extensive revision of the taxonomy within this plant group, they were reclassified as one species and given the scientific name Acmella oleracea.
Other Common Names: Paracress, brazilcress, jambu (Spanish), Husarenknopfblume (German), cresson de Para (French), tannpineplante (Norwegian), tandvärksplanta (Swedish), jin chou kou (Chinese), parakrassi (Finnish), parakarse (Danish).
Habitat: The plant is native to Brazil, but it is now cultivated throughout the world for ornamental proposes, for consumption as food or spice, and as a medicinal plant.
In many tropical areas throughout the world, the plant has escaped from cultivation and grows wild.
Toothache plant does not tolerate frost and grows only as an annual in areas with a temperate climate, but it is usually perennial in areas with a tropical climate.
The plant is propagated by seeds or cuttings and needs regular moisture, well-drained soil and full sun to thrive.
Description: The toothache plant belongs to the daisy family, also known as the aster family (Asteraceae). It can grow up to 40 cm tall with olive-green to slightly purple, ovate leaves with wavy margins.
The small single yellow flowers form a cone-shape on short erect flower stalks.
Plant Parts Used: The above-ground parts of the plant are used as food and herbal medicine.
The plant material is harvested during the flowering period. The flower heads are harvested mostly for commercial recovery of the substance spilanthol.
The leaves are collected for use in cooking and are best to use fresh.
Toothache plant has no particular smell but it does have an exciting flavor that goes from salty to strong burning sharpness, resulting in a numb feeling in the mouth.
Medicinal Applications and Health Benefits of Toothache Plant
Active Ingredients and Substances: The toothache plant contains alkylamides (most importantly spilanthol), choline, flavonoids, tannins, sesquiterpene lactones, resins, phytosterols and essential oil containing limonene, β-caryophyllene, Z-β-ocimene, γ-cadinene, thymol, germacrene D and myrcene.
The substance in the plant that has gained most interest is the sharp tasting spillanthol which has anesthetic and analgesic effect. In the flower heads, there may be 1.2% or more of this substance, while the leaves contain much less.
Spillanthol is similar to the alkylamides found in echinacea (Echinacea purpurea), a herb that also shares many of the same medicinal properties as the toothache plant.
Spilanthol has also been shown to be a powerful insecticide capable of killing the mosquito larvae in a dilution of 1: 100,000.
An Immune-Strengthening and Antibiotic Herb
Toothache plant is used to promote the immune system’s resistance to infections.
The herb is regarded to have general immunoregulatory properties when used internally by promoting the production of leukocytes (white blood cells) and antiviral interferons, a group of proteins released by cells in virus-infected tissue and preventing or delaying the growth of viruses.
The herb has been shown to promote the phagocytosis (the process when phagocytes pick up and break down e.g bacteria). The herb has therefore been used against parasites in the blood (especially malaria), both as a preventive and curative. The leaves can also be used to treat bacterial or fungal-related skin diseases.
Furthermore, the herb has been used as an internal remedy for the common cold and flu and to reduce allergic symptoms. The herb is often prescribed to treat swollen glands, gum disease and infections caused by bacteria, viruses or fungi.
Internally, the herb is also used in the form of a tea to relieve chronic rheumatic pains and inflammation of the urinary tract (cystitis, urethritis, prostatitis). To increase the effect of the herb for ailments related to the urinary tract, fluid intake (including herbal teas) is often recommended to be at least two liters daily.
The toothache plant is thought to promote digestion, reduce intestinal gas production and improve appetite, and because of the stimulating effect it has on the salivary glands it can be helpful in suppressing nausea and vomiting.
External Uses of Toothache Plant
Externally, the toothache plant is used in the form of an extract or tincture as a mouthwash to treat general inflammation of the gums and the oral cavity.
The English common name toothache plant refers to the pain-relieving effect the plant has on a toothache, a well-known application by the locals in tropical countries where the plant is cultivated.
When the flower heads are shewed on, a temporary anesthetic effect can be achieved accompanied by significant increase in saliva production.
In addition, the herb is used in the form of gel, liniment or spray, usually made from standardized plant extracts, as a relief for minor external injuries, burns, itchy skin, sprains, insect stings and bites, rheumatic pain and muscle aches.
In Sri Lanka, the ripe leaves are drawn in sesame oil and use as wraps for burns.
In India, the flower heads are also a popular remedy for stuttering in children.
Culinary uses of the toothache plant are nowadays mostly associated with the natives of tropical Brazil, especially in the provinces of Acre, Amazonas, Pará, and Ceará, where the herb is widely used in cooking.
Small amounts of the chopped fresh leaves will give a special taste to salads but when cooked the leaves will lose some of their strong flavors and can, therefore, be used in the same manner as other leafy vegetables.
Both fresh and boiled leaves are used in dishes such as soups and stews and are often combined with chili and garlic to add flavor and vitamins to other foods.
In India, the flower buds are used as a flavoring in chewing tobacco.
Dosage and Administration
As tea: Add one tablespoon of the herb in a cup of boiling water and draw for 25 minutes.
As a liquid extract (1:1): 10-60 drops in a glass of water, 1-4 times daily.
For all commercial products containing the toothache plant, the manufacturer’s instructions should be followed.
Possible Side Effects and Interactions of Toothache Plant
As of yet, there are no known side effects or interactions associated with the use of the toothache plant in moderation.
The herb should, however, be contraindicated in pregnant and breastfeeding mothers since so little is still known regarding the effect the herb can have on the developing fetus or child.
Excessive external uses of the herb may cause skin irritation in some people.
Although the toothache plant can temporarily relieve a toothache, it is vital to visit a dentist regarding the appropriate dental treatment.
Bown, Deni: The Royal Horticultural Society New Encyclopedia of Herbs & Their Uses. London, Dorling Kindersley 2002.
Skenderi, Gazmend: Herbal Vade Mecum. 800 Herbs, Spices, Essential Oils, Lipids Etc. Constituents, Properities, Uses, and Caution. Rutherford, New Jersey, Herbacy Press 2003.
Tilgner, Sharol: Herbal Medicine. From the Heart of the Earth. Cresswell, Oregon. Wise Acres Press 1999.
van Wyk, Ben-Erik & Michael Wink: Medicinal Plants of the World. Portland, Oregon, Timber Press 2004.