Toothache Plant – a taste sensation?
This is another in the list of unusual edibles from Central and Southern America. The Latin name is Acmella oleracea (syn Spilanthes oleracea) and it has a range of common names. Toothache Plant is the western name from its use as a natural relief from toothache. In its native homeland it is called Jambu or Paracress – after Para the state of Brazil where it is a popular ingredient in spicey stews. Other common names include: Pipulka, Buzz Buttons, Sansho Buttons, Electric Buttons and Szechuan Buttons. The latter names come from the numbing sensation of the flowers that is similar to the effects of the Chinese Szechuan Pepper. The Latin name was created late in the eighteenth century and comes from the Greek words: spilos - meaning spot or stain, and anthos - meaning flower. It refers to the darkened spot on the tip of the button shaped infloresence.
It is native to northern Brazil although there is some discussion as whether it is a naturally occurring species or a hybrid between Acmella alba and another local plant. It has been part of the Brazilian diet and natural medicine cabinet for hundreds of years. It was then moved around South America by the Portuguese and eventually made its way to Asia and India via the spice traders. It has now become popular in many of their dishes.
Jambu is a small flowering plant that adds interesting colour to the garden. There are several forms available with purple green foliage and yellow and crimson flowers, light green and yellow flowers with a crimson tip and light green foliage with all yellow flowers. All three forms are attractive perennials that look great in any perennial or cottage garden. They put on a pretty show in summer-autumn when the cute button flowers are all out. It is a short lived perennial (3-4 years) that likes part to full sun, needs an occasional water over the heat of summer and is tolerant of light frosts. A light prune in autumn will keep it neat and tidy. In cold climates it should be treated as an annual as it is unlikely to survive the frosts.
The real interest in Jambu is its culinary and medicinal uses. The Latin synonym for the genus is Spilanthes which gives its name to a fatty acid called spilanthol. This chemical is popping up in a range of products. In Mali it is approved as an anti-malarial treatment and in other regions it is showing some success as a targeted insecticide. Many herbalists, natural therapists and home doctors use this unique plant to relieve the pain associated with tooth ache and gum disease. By simply rubbing a flower bud on the part of the gum around the troublesome tooth will relieve the pain. A mouthwash made from the flowers has been shown to help reduce tooth decay in much same way we use modern alcohol based washes. The constituent that gives the unusual tingling sensation and the 'mouth watering' experience has been widely used in food products for several decades. It is also used in the cosmetic industry to reduce wrinkles in ageing skin.
As spilanthol is a fatty acid it is not an easy chemical to isolate and remove from the flowers and leaves. Generally it is best extracted by ethanol, microwave or high pressure CO2 extraction. These are processes that are expensive and not easily available to small farmers. There has been some work with steam distillation but results are not great. There are several companies and research projects looking at synthetic forms but it is still early.
At the same time as its commercial potential is being realised and investigated it is also finding favour with foodies in restaurants, home gardens and trendy bars. Like so many other plants all parts of the Jambu have been used in cooking. The leaves are used in salads and stews or casseroles. When eaten raw they have tingling effect mentioned above but when cooked they lose this and become another leafy green. The flowers are also used in salads and giving bite to some bland root dishes. They work well mixed with chilli and garlic where the numbing effect of the spilanthol counteracts the burning of a hot chilli but leaving the peppery taste. Mixed with chilli it will simulate the flavours of Szechuan pepper.
Since this plant was first written about in gardening and food magazines in the US it has started to appear on trendy and alternative restaurants and bars. For many foodies this is one of those must try flavours and there is even a Victorian herb grower who is supplying it as a micro-green for the restaurant industry.
So get some plants for your garden and try some new dishes and drinks. I found this interesting cocktail recipe on the internet: