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Button Up: Toothache plant is fascinating

Native to Brazil, the toothache plant (Spilanthes acmella) is one of the most fascinating plants I’m growing this year. In Spain and in Portugal, the plant is called jambu. It’s known as paracress too, after a province in Brazil called Para. It’s not a cress though, but a member of the daisy family.

For my small growing space, I try to choose plants that, in addition to being edible (and tasty), are beautiful to look at. Toothache plant produces tiny flowers clustered together tightly so that they form a round or cone-shaped “button.” New buttons start out with a red center which adds to the plant’s unusual look.

When you chew on the leaves or the flowers, your mouth starts to tingle and eventually feel kind of numb. The flowers especially have this tingling and numbing effect and are thought to be helpful in treating toothaches.

On-line, tasters say the plant has the effect of Pop Rocks. A visitor who tried a button this weekend and who had never heard of the plant said it was like Pop Rocks too. The mild numbing effect feels like static in the mouth and after a while, it seems your tongue is coated in butter.

I like how the plant tastes —the initial flavor is of a salted celery leaf. Leaves may be used in salads and taste peppery. The leaves may also be useful as a palate cleanser.

Some spilanthes enthusiasts think of the plant as being beneficial to gum and mouth health and a general immune booster because of its seeming antiseptic properties.

I like to snack on the leaves and buttons while I’m outside in the garden, but the flowers are interesting in a tisane with basil.

I started the spilanthes seeds April 12 indoors. Twelve days later, the seedlings were about to get their first true leaves and on May 21, the plants were big enough and the weather was warm enough for planting out. By early July, the flowers started developing and they continue to come on in a dark blue ceramic pot on my back step.

Check out Gernot Katzer's spice pages for a lot of information about toothache plant including culinary uses and etymology: http://www.uni-graz.at/~katzer/engl/Spil_acm.html.

Eden Kruger is a news assistant at The Observer.


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