Peculiar and other-worldly, Spilanthes delights the senses. As a flower, you probably assume it possesses a captivating scent, but that’s not where its uniqueness lies. The flower itself is certainly uncommon, which adds to its intrigue. But the taste – more like the incredible mouth sensation it produces upon only the tiniest nibble- sets this plant apart from any other.
The tingling effects it has on the mouth when ingested overwhelm the senses. For many, this experience is truly delightful, which is why it has been used as a culinary spice in different cultures worldwide.
Along with culinary uses, spilanthes is a medicinal herb with immense therapeutic potential. And the best part is that it’s incredibly easy to grow, even for those who claim to have a brown thumb.
Whether you wish to grow spilanthes, learn of its traditional uses and medicinal benefits, or all the above, this is the right place to be. I’ll cover everything you need to know about this phenomenal herb, including what it is, how to grow it, its traditional and medicinal uses, and how to make medicine from it. Let’s get started.
What Is Spilanthes?
Spilanthes (Acmella oleracea; formerly Spilanthes oleracea) is a tropical, short-lived perennial native to Brazil. In temperate regions, it’s grown as an annual and is cultivated throughout much of the world for its medicinal and culinary uses, especially in India, China, and Central and South America. It belongs to the plant family Asteraceae, also known as the daisy family, which includes other well-known plants such as chamomile and sunflower.
This unique plant goes by several common names, many alluding to its medicinal uses, taste, and interesting appearance. These names include toothache plant, eyeball plant, electric daisies, para-cress, jambu (Brazil), Szechuan buttons, electric buttons, and buzz buttons.
As a somewhat low-growing, spreading plant, spilanthes is commonly grown as a bedding herb or in containers where it beautifully sprawls over the edges. It has thick, succulent-like leaves and stems with multiple yellow-red flower heads rising from the plethora of leaves.
These flower heads don’t have any “true” petals and consist of numerous ray florets. Although they have the appearance of a flower “bud,” spilanthes inflorescence is actually made up of hundreds of individual flowers!
Think of the bright yellow center of a chamomile flower without the petals (which are actually disc florets), and that’s essentially what Spilanthese looks like. One of its common names, eyeball plant, is derived from the appearance of the flowers, which are yellow around the circumference and red in the middle, slightly similar to an eyeball.
How To Grow Spilanthes
Although it’s native to the tropics, spilanthes can grow as a frost-tender annual in zones 2-8 and as a perennial in zones 9 and higher. It prefers full sun to partial shade in average-to-moist fertile soil.
Sow seeds directly in the garden after the danger of frost has passed, or start in seed trays indoors to get a head start on the season. Barely cover the tiny seeds with soil and tamp firmly; germination occurs in about five to ten days at about 70-85℉ (21-29℃).
Space plants about 1 to 2 feet apart, as they will readily spread. Although spilanthes is low-growing, it can reach almost two feet in height, primarily if it’s grown in damp garden soil rich with organic matter. Because it prefers nutrient-dense soil, consider amending the soil beforehand with compost and mulch heavily.
Despite its succulent appearance, spilanthes is very un-succulent-like in that it requires consistently moist soil. Don’t water-log the plant; just ensure it receives adequate and consistent watering. If the soil does dry, it will be quick to tell you it’s thirsty as spilanthes is prone to wilt.
Spilanthes can grow directly in the ground or garden beds or containers. If you live in an arid climate, consider planting spilanthes in a container in part shade so you don’t have to water as frequently. I personally think spilanthes prefer part shade over full sun (unless you live in zones 2-4), as I have planted spilanthes in both, and the ones growing in part shade are more vibrant than the full sun plants.
If given its preferred conditions, spilanthes will flower throughout much of the growing season, from June until the first frost in October or November. You can encourage more flowers by snipping off the flower buds; these can be dried for later use, made into a tea, or composted.
Spilanthe’s leaves and flowers are used for culinary and medicinal purposes. For culinary uses, snip the leaves and flowers as needed.
For a larger harvest, snip back the aboveground growth about three to five inches above the base of the plant. Strip the leaves and flowers, saving the tender, flowering stalks and discarding the older, more fibrous stems.
The aerial parts can be dried or tinctured. The fresh plant is more medicinal than the dried, so a fresh alcohol extract is the superior medicine. The dried flowers are still quality medicine if they produce a pronounced tingling sensation in the mouth. Once they lose their “tingliness,” they’re no longer as medicinally potent.
Because spilanthes spreads, just a few plants produce a sizable harvest. Plus, you can get one to three harvests throughout the season because it quickly regrows, making it superb medicinal for those with limited space.
Like most medicinal plants, many of spilanthes’ traditional uses are still how it is used today. It’s used in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) and Ayurvedic medicine, which is the ancient traditional medicine system of India. In South America and Asia (notably India and Thailand), it is highly regarded as a toothache remedy, which is how it earned one of its names, toothache plant.
It was (and still is) used for all manners of oral health, including tooth infections, to strengthen the gums, and to help prevent cavities.
Spilanthes is also used as a traditional remedy for digestive complaints, intestinal infections, and parasites. It has been employed as a snakebite remedy in Cameroon and as a topical preparation in many parts of the world for burns, infections, and fungal rashes. In Bolivia, it is used to alleviate musculoskeletal conditions such as arthritis and back pain (Blankespoor, Chestnut School of Herbal Medicine)
Spilanthes has traditional culinary uses as well. The intense tingling sensation it produces in the mouth is used as a seasoning for traditional Chinese, Nepali, and Tibetan dishes. In South America, it is used to season meats and is thrown into soups, stews, and stir-fries to add an extra zing to the flavor (Blankespoor, Chestnut School of Herbal Medicine).
Parts Used: Leaves, stems, and flowers
- Sialagogue (induces saliva secretion)
- Anodyne (orally)
- Circulatory Stimulant
- Anthelmintic (expels/destroys parasitic worms)
In herbal medicine, it’s taught that to learn the medicine of a plant, you must taste that plant. From that experience, you have a clue as to what that medicinal plant is doing in the body. For example, when you taste bitterness, you know that the plant will increase bile secretions and support overall digestion.
When tasting spilanthes, it shows its therapeutic value quickly and intensely. First, it produces tingling throughout the mouth, increases saliva secretion, and then numbs the areas of the mouth it was touching most.
From this experience, it’s clear that spilanthes increases circulation and lymphatic movement in the gums and has an anodyne (pain-relieving) effect through its numbing abilities. In this way, spilanthes can be used for general gum health, as it promotes fresh oxygenated blood to the area and helps disperse any accumulated waste products through increasing saliva secretions. This latter effect is incredibly beneficial for those who suffer from dry mouth, such as cancer patients.
For oral health, there are a few ways to use spilanthes. If you have it growing, you can simply nibble on a fresh flower or leaf. Or, you can dry the flower heads, powder them, and add them to other tooth powders. After brushing your teeth, add the dried powdered flowers to a wet toothbrush and gently brush your gums.
Spilanthes is a potent immunostimulant and is antibacterial, antiseptic, and antifungal. Because of this and its effects on the teeth and gums, it was traditionally used for tooth infections. It can still be used in the same way today in conjunction with antibiotic therapy while awaiting dental care.
A recent study explored spilanthe’s effects in vitro against root canal pathogens in comparison to a common medication used for that purpose. They found that “SPA [Spilanthes acmella] possesses remarkable antibacterial and antifungal activity against common root canal pathogens which are responsible for repeated endodontic failures such as E. faecalis and C. albicans when compared with medicaments like Ca(OH)2 [calcium hydroxide].”
Spilanthes immunostimulant properties can also be used for general bacterial and virus infections, such as the common cold or flu. It can support the body during illness by lowering a fever (if present), and its numbing and anti-inflammatory properties will help ease the pain of an accompanying sore throat.
Because of its immune stimulant and diuretic effect, which means it pulls fluids from the tissues, excretes them out through the kidneys, and increases the overall function of the urinary tract, spilanthes would be highly beneficial for urinary tract infections.
For immune health, it’s best to take spilanthes as a fresh tincture, which is a concentrated alcohol extract. Spilanthes is most medicinally potent when fresh, which is why a fresh tincture is preferred.
Cardiovascular & Male Reproductive System Support
Spilanthes may have therapeutic benefits for the cardiovascular system due to the presence of flavonoids and its antioxidant activity. Both of those plant compounds are anti-inflammatory, strengthen the cardiovascular system, and prevent free radical damage.
In vivo studies with rats showed that spilanthes has vasorelaxant effects, which means it can relax and open (dilate) the blood vessels near the surface of the skin. This process is attributed to spilanthes’ ability to lower a fever and increase blood flow to the periphery.
Scientific literature shows that spilanthes circulatory stimulant and vasorelaxant effects may also contribute to its use as an aphrodisiac for men. Along with those actions, spilanthes has a direct effect on reproductive hormones as well, specifically testosterone. Animal models show that spilanthes may improve sexual behavior, specifically for cases such as erectile dysfunction. The scientific study states, “It was suggested that alkamides may mimic the action of testosterone or stimulate the secretion of testosterone.”
Spilanthes’ antifungal properties make it highly beneficial for rashes, such as athlete’s foot and ringworm. It can be used as a poultice, compress, or wash for these purposes. It can also be used for infected cuts, insect bites, swelling, and inflammation.
Cosmetically, scientific studies show that spilanthes can reduce wrinkles and “accelerate the repair of functional wrinkles as well as stimulate, reorganize and strengthen the collagen network and has thus been utilized for antiaging purposes in the form of anti wrinkle cream formulation.” This is partly due to spilanthes vasorelaxant and circulatory stimulant properties.
For use as a face cream, it would be best to infuse the dried or freshly wilted flowering heads in oil, such as jojoba or sweet almond oil. This oil can be added to a cream or salve recipe.
The mouth-tingling sensation spilanthes produces is caused by the bioactive compounds alkamides, also known as alkylamides. In Spilanthes, the most abundant alkylamide is Spilanthol. This active compound contributes to Spilanthes’ immune-stimulating, anti-inflammatory, and anodyne properties.
Other active constituents in Spilanthes include essential oils, phytosterols, sesquiterpenes, flavonoids, antioxidants, vanillic acid, trans-ferulic acid, and more.
These active compounds, and all the other chemicals that make up the structure of Spilanthes, are the causes behind the physiological changes one experiences when they take this plant.
However, they are meant to work in synergy rather than as isolated parts. In this way, it’s important to not hone in on one individual chemical but to see that they work together to produce their medicinal effects.
Herbal Safety & Contraindications
Be careful when nibbling on the fresh flower; only start with a tiny nibble because if you get too much to start, the sensation may cause the throat to “clamp down” (Blankespoor, Chestnut School of Herbal Medicine).
Spilanthes belongs to the Asteraceae family, which is known to cause allergic reactions in people who are highly sensitive to certain members of this family, such as ragweed or chamomile. Because of this, it could cause a reaction in sensitive individuals. However, it is highly rare, and there have been no reported allergic reactions to spilanthes.
If you are pregnant, nursing, have an autoimmune disease or are on medication, consult with a qualified herbalist or trusted healthcare professional before consuming spilanthes or any herbal medicine or dietary supplements.
How To Make a Spilanthes Tincture
There are two ways to make a tincture – the folk method or the scientific method (both produce viable medicine).
The folk method is the easiest. Start by gathering your fresh plant material. Strip the lower leaves of spilanthes and cut off the harder fibrous stems, leaving the tender upper stems.
Then, chop up the plant material using a sharp knife until it’s in tiny pieces. Fill a large glass jar with plant material and then pour 70-90% alcohol over the plant material until it barely covers it. I prefer cane alcohol or vodka, but brandy is also a favored choice among herbalists.
The scientific method follows the initial steps of the folk method. However, it’s based off of a weight-to-volume ratio, such as 1:2 or 1:4 (one part plant material to two parts liquid).
Before you place your chopped plant material in a jar, weigh it and then multiply that weight by the intended ratio. For example, if you have 3 grams of plant material, then you would add 6 ounces of liquid for a 1:2 ratio.
A 1:2 ratio is difficult to get unless you use a blender to make your plant material super fine. I find it more realistic to shoot for a 1:3 or 1:4 ratio. The benefit of using a ratio is that you end up with a more concentrated extract, and it’s easier to measure dosing.
After preparing your tincture, write on the jar lid:
- Alcohol percentage
- Plant name (common and scientific)
- Ratio (if applicable)
- Where you gathered the plant from
Then, store your tincture in a cool, dark place, shaking it a few times a week. In about six weeks, strain off the alcohol extract, discard the plant material, and store in an air-tight jar in a cool, dark place.
As an herbalist, my goal is to connect people with the healing powers of nature. Through my writings and herbal concoctions, I aim to guide others toward a healthier lifestyle using time-honored methods. With over four years of experience studying herbalism and organic gardening, I offer my knowledge to inspire others to explore the natural world, cultivate their own gardens, and rediscover their bond with the earth.