A group of curious visitors were at the gate, and my young children ran to let them in. There was Jeb, with bare feet summer-toughened, impervious to the sharp rock of the driveway. And Sena followed as a close second, so light on her feet that no surface would make much impression, shoes or no. They both had blackberry stains on their fingertips and more purple stains at the edges of their slightly mischievous smiles.
The visitors, dressed in khaki shorts and Birkenstocks, didn't know what to expect as they were lead through the gate. The children chattered merrily, as if to pre-empt suspicion, bringing them boldly along to the edge of the field. There, among the vericolored rows of medicinal purple and green, was a well-nourished and recently irrigated bed of Spilanthes plants, the bright bicolored gold and red buds poking out in profusion from glossy green leaves. Here the children stopped and asked the question of the day, "Have you ever tasted a Spilanthes bud?" And, after the inevitable "No, what is it?" said "Try one and see!"
Whether due to the charming grins of the children, or influenced by the safe and cozy atmosphere of the farm, the familiar rows of corn and tomatoes, the slightly curious goats at the fence, the balmy sunshine suspended between blue-green arms of the conifer treed mountains and the far-off tinkling of Munger's Creek, the fated newcomers took one each of these plumpish and inviting flower buds, thoughtfully chewing away, as if they were tasting perhaps a new variety of strawberry or grape, proferred by simple country folk as the greatest delight available. But now the children were smiling broadly, and as the visitors chewed, began to laugh and slap their knees in great anticipation. The taste of Spilanthes is pleasantly saline at first, but soon develops and blossoms into an indescribable profusion of stimulatory responses, including profuse salivation and a general tingling buzz of the tongue and lips, as if the teeth have begun to play musical chairs, springing painlessly from their moorage and rioting about in chaotic dance, while the saliva continues to pour.
Their welcoming ceremony completed, the children retreated a safe distance, and watched as the visitors swallowed and swallowed again. Our unsuspecting guests were left standing, mouths agape, allowing the drool to fall indelicately amongst the flowers, the clover and the pigweed. "It's OK," giggled the children. "It'll go away pretty soon. It's good for ya!" I considered it a harmless introduction to the sometimes debated concept that "herbs work", and a fitting initiation to our farm of medicinal plants, where no-one should eat anything unless they know beyond any doubt that it is a safe food, and not an active medicine. Besides, this kind of fun was instructive to the visitors, and for the children more organic than video games and more communal than reading. I also secretly appreciated the spectacle.
How is it that a plant with such remarkable effects is so little known? Native to the tropics of both Africa and South America, the genus must be extremely ancient, dating perhaps to a time before the drifting of the continents. People of traditional cultures in the old and the new world independently discovered the utility of this tropical perennial plant for treating toothaches, as a powerful urinary antiseptic and as a prophylactic against malaria. Cultures in the northern hemisphere have been slow to recognize the benefits of Spilanthes, despite the fact that it grows readily as a garden annual, and can reach great dimensions in a single summer, sending out long succulent stems which easily push advantitious roots into rich, moist soil. Modern ailments are crying out for this healing plant, and it will very soon be much more widely known, if my kids have anything to say about it.
The plant owes its activity to the antiseptic alkaloid Spilanthol (present at a concentration of as much as 1.25% in the flowers of S. acmella)1, as well as immune stimulating (and saliva stimulating) alkylamides2. Spilanthol is effective at extremely low concentrations against blood parasites, and indeed is a poison to most invertebrates while remaining harmless to warmblooded creatures. This is the explanation for its utility against blood parasites, specifically malarial spirochetes, either as a prophylactic or as a treatment for malarial paroxysms.3 Further investigation of possible activity against other conditions involving blood parasites, including Lyme's disease, is warranted.
The herb is also a strong anti-bacterial. Studies show strong in-vitro activity of Spilanthes extracts against such common pathogens as Escherichia coli, Klebsiella pneumoniae, Proteus vulgaris, Pseudomonas aeruginosa, Salmonella gallinarum and Staphylococcus albus. 4 Spilanthes also inhibits the yeast/fungal organism Candida albicans, which is responsible for the nearly epidemic condition known as candidiasis.5
The buzzing sensation is an indication that the herb is working as an immune stimulant. This sensation may be attributed to the presence of the alkylamide fraction6, very similar to constituents found in Prickly Ash (Zanthoxylum clava-herculis) and in Echinacea angustifolia and purpurea. I believe that internal use of this herb stimulates increased rate of phagocytosis, increased production of white blood cells and an increased production of antiviral interferon. A study was done on dried Spilanthes leaf from Rwanda showing active immunomodulating activity, specifically increased production of mononuclear leukocytes7. Given the obvious sialagogue (saliva-inducing) effects, it is clear that there is stimulation of not only the parotid glands, but also of the interrelated lymphatic system. Anything that moves the lymphatic fluids will defend the body against disease, and assist in the ousting of toxic metabolic waste.
Each morning this summer, I have slowly chewed a small, immature bud from the plant which grows riotously in my greenhouse, experiencing no ill effects. I suppose that taking high doses could compromise the native intestinal flora, but have found no ill effects from taking a small quantity internally daily, and would not hesitate to use repeated doses, up to ten times daily, if treating a debilitating infection. I find the healthy stimulation of saliva to be beneficial in the morning before breakfast, to awaken hunger. A single dose quickly dispels any feeling of over-fullness due to having slept too soon after dinner, and may be employed to replace the beckoning cup of coffee.
When my son Jeb was between the ages of two and ten, he experienced repeated bouts of ear infection. The naturopath confirmed on several occasions that his ear drums had burst from internal pressure. There was purulent discharge, much pain and hearing loss. Through trial, error and my wife's innate woman's intuition we determined that he was allergic to both wheat and dairy, and through altering his diet were able to avoid earaches most of the time. We were loathe to use antibiotics during acute episodes, and instead utilized Echinacea tincture followed by Spilanthes tincture, at half hour intervals throughout the day. The immune enhancing activity of the Echinacea was thus followed up by the anti-bacterial influence of the Spilanthes, and together they would invariably oust the infection.
A friend suffering from degenerative gum disease made a habit of dropping a little Spilanthes extract into a glass of clean water, using this as a swish after tooth brushing. She continued with this practice for several months, and then went to her dentist who exclaimed "What have you been doing to make your gums so healthy?!" Whereupon she explained the Spilanthes mouthwash regimen. After trying it himself, he eventually poured all his sweet green liquids down the sink, and started using the diluted Spilanthes, instead. The mode of activity here is quite simply the stimulation of blood circulation to the oral mucosa, in conjunction with a rapid flushing of all the tooth and gum interstices by the freely flowing saliva, and the antibacterial activity of the spilanthol. In this case, we see that the whole herb extract is more useful than any single constituent could ever be, as the effects are synergistic.
According to my own observations, the entire plant (root, stem, leaf and flower) is medicinally active and non-toxic to humans. A simple alcohol-based liquid extract may be made of the entire fresh plant, or the buds or leaves may be chewed. The dried plant is also medicinally active, and especially the dried flower buds retain their "zing" for up to a year after harvest. There are at least thirteen species (probably more) worldwide, which contain varying concentrations of active constituents. I have familiarity with only two species: Spilanthes acmella and S. oleracea. Of these, S. acmella has a lighter green foliage and tends to set more flowers, which are flattened at first, becoming conical as they mature. S. oleracea (oleracea means edible) is a larger-leaved plant, perhaps a bit more robust, with purplish leaves and larger, less numerous flowers, which are more flattened, resembling bi-color buttons. Medicinally, either species works fine. The leaves of Spilanthes may be used as a salad ingredient, but only very sparingly, and probably will be appreciated only by the most heroic of vegetarians.
Cultivation: Spilanthes is a perennial in the tropics and sub-tropics, but may be grown as an annual in temperate regions. The seed germinates vigorously in about 12 days under greenhouse conditions (70-90 degrees F). Damp and cool conditions should be avoided, or the seeds may rot. The plants should be started indoors or in the greenhouse early in the spring, so the seedlings are well established at the time of transplanting to the garden. You can even direct seed in the garden in early summer, but the plants will not attain the same size as plants started in the greenhouse. If allowed to grow for too long in too small of pots, the plants will rapidly and all at once droop and wither due to lack of essential water and nutrients. If the plants start to droop before the soil has warmed up in the garden, then transplant to a larger pot. With the onset of summer weather, the garden soil warms sufficiently to support these tropical plants. Transplant in the evening, and water well. Full sun is tolerated as long as the plants are watered deeply and often. A little shade may reduce the water requirement without compromising plant growth. Spilanthes is a heavy feeder, preferring rich soils and an occasional side-dressing of organic compost. Under these conditions, growth continues at an incredible rate, with mature plants sometimes weighing as much as ten pounds fresh weight. The plant may also be propagated by stem cuttings. Choose a stem which is already rooting in. Sever the stem near the crown, keeping attached rootlets intact. Plant this start in a pot, or give it a new place in the garden. Keep constantly moist until the new plant overcomes transplant shock, at which point it will develop individually, although we all know that a plant propagated in this way is actually a clone, genetically identical to the mother plant.
Harvest: The leaf and buds may be harvested on an ongoing basis, as often as the plant can afford. No one person could consume this plant as fast as it will grow. Nobody has that much saliva. But for commercial harvest, or to put up a good stock of tincture for the winter, the plant should be allowed to grow through the summer months. Harvest Spilanthes in its peak at the end of summer, just before the cooling nights begin to turn the leaves spotty and brown. Dig the entire plant up, and wash the roots free of dirt. If you need only a little botanical material, or if you have a lot of plants, you may want to utilize only the flowers, which are quite strong. Once the first real frost hits, that's it. A once warm and lively tropical transplant will soon be reduced to a pile of cold mash. Even the seeds, dropped from disintegrating flowers, generally will not remain viable outdoors through the long winter. In temperate areas self-seeded plants are a rare ocurrence.
In these times of ready availability of caffeine, it is refreshing to come into contact with a stimulant which will not deplete the adrenal glands. The utility of Spilanthes does not stop here. It makes sense to take a bottle with you to the tropics, or grow it and use it actively if you already live there. Malaria is no fun. Given the softness of many of our modern foods (and our cultural proclivity towards sugar), an agent which tonifies the gums and prevents tooth decay is strongly indicated. Finally, the proliferation of bacterial, fungal and viral conditions and urinary tract infection is actively resisted by this herb. For all these reasons and more, I would dub Spilanthes an herb for our times, and urge all that do not know it to develop a relationship with it, for the common good.
Copyright 1996, Richard A. (Richo) Cech
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