Spilanthes (Acmella oleracea)
Toothache Plant, Peek-A-Boo, Electric Daisy, Para Cress (after the Brazilian province), Brazil Cress, Alphabet Plant, Australian Cress, Spilanthol Plant, Eyeball Plant, Spot Plant, Jambu, Buzz Buttons, Szechuan Buttons
About This Plant
Spilanthes is a memorable plant, in more ways than one. Its compact pom pom-shaped flower heads are set atop elongated stems. They begin flat and red, then gradually elongate into a conical, petalless yellow flower head, retaining the red portion at the top, earning it the name “Eyeball Plant” in some parts of the world. It flowers mid-Summer until frost. It has a spreading, trailing habit and its leaves are dark green with a bronze-purple tone. The plant is native to Brazil and is perennial in warmer climates (USDA zones 10 to 11) while growing as an annual in temperate regions (USDA zones 2 to 9). It is considered frost-tender, but will maintain its greenness after most of your other plants have died from the cold.
Spilanthes is low-growing, about four to ten inches high with a mounding habit, but will sprawl out and consume two feet around it. It thrives in high humidity and well-drained soils. It grows in the ground or in containers and makes a wonderful addition to border gardens as accent plants. Once established, it is easy to grow.
Perhaps the most memorable thing about Spilantes is its “zing” when you chew it. Eating a whole flower bud results in a light lemony-grassy taste, followed by an extremely strong tingling or numbing sensation, often with excessive saliva production and a cooling sensation in the throat. The bizarre experience takes place almost immediately and does subside after just a few minutes. Some people compare it to putting your tongue on a battery. Others say it, “excites the nerve endings,” or that it’s “like dancing in your mouth.” Others call it “nature’s toothbrush and party favor.”
Spilanthes is recognized in traditional medicine throughout Asia and South America. The entire plant is medicinally active and the flowers are the strongest part.
Seeds germinate easily and can be sown indoors 4 to 6 weeks before last frost. Do not cover the seed as they need light to germinate. Trays can be watered from the base and covered until germination to maintain moisture. Germination takes about 7 to 10 days at 70 degrees Fahrenheit. If direct seeding, place 4 to 6 seeds together every 6” or sow about one seed per inch.
Plant out in the late Spring or early Summer. Seedlings can be transplanted when they are a couple of inches tall and large enough to handle. Whether started indoors or direct seeded, thin to one plant or clump of two to three seedlings every 12”. Flowers begin to bloom about one month after transplanting. Pinch plants back after approximately eight weeks to promote branching.
Spilanthes plants prefer sun and a well-drained soil, though it should be watered regularly and deeply until mature. It is quick to shrivel if it gets thirsty but does perk back up quickly once watered. It will tolerate a little shade, which will also reduce water requirements. Saturated or boggy ground which will likely result in stem rot and general poor health. Spilanthes prefers rich soils so occasionally sidedress with organic compost. Plants are not particularly fussy, but they do enjoy good garden soil, lots of sunshine and lots of water. It is resistant to disease, insects and rabbits. It can form a dense ground cover under taller herbs or vegetables. It often reseeds from one year to the next, so be purposeful when choosing a growing space. Once frost hits, the plant dies back.
Leaves and buds may be harvested on an ongoing basis, as often as the plant will tolerate. For a large harvest, for example, for drying or putting up a good stock of tincture for winter, the plant should be harvested at its peak at the end of summer. Dried plant material, especially the dried flower buds retain their “zing” for up to a year after harvest.
A single flower creates tons of seeds. Simply wait for seeds to ripen, harvest and dry. Store in a cool dry place.
- Insecticidal–it kills the larvae of mosquitoes
- Groundcover under taller herbs and vegetables.
Fresh leaves can be eaten like cress and added sparingly to salads. In Brazil, leaves are often added to chilis to offset the burn. Innovative chefs are using Spilanthes in sushis, salads, and cocktails for a tongue-tingling sensation. There is even a popular alcohol made from Spilantes called Tingala!
Spilanthes has properties similar to Echinacea and is used to enhance the immune system, improve digestion, and help with nausea. Spilanthes has long been used in India for the treatment of gum and dental problems. It gets one of its names, Toothache Plant, because of the numbing properties it produces when the leaves and flowers are chewed. The flowers are crushed and applied at the site of the toothache. Spilanthol is the name of the constituent responsible for this anaesthetic/analgesic effect. Spilanthes is a sialagogue, which means it stimulates the increased flow of saliva and consequently promotes digestion. It has been used to aid in the side effects from cancer treatments such as dry mouth, mouth sores and inflammation or changes in taste sensation. An extract from spilanthol has even found its way into high-end face creams due to its muscle relaxing effects which are said to have a natural “botox” effect.
The Acmella genus is native to Brazil and Africa. A. oleracea is thought to have been derived through cultivation from A. alba, a species native to Peru and Brazil. It was probably introduced to the Indian Ocean Islands by the Portuguese and subsequently spread to East Africa by Indian labourers who came to work on railroad construction around 1900.