Herbs for Healthy Teeth and Gums

Use herbs to improve dental hygiene.

| August/September 1999

  • Young dogwood twigs, stripped of their bark and rubbed against the teeth and gums, were used in many cultures as the forerunners of the modern toothbrush.
  • Researchers have found that remedies containing powdered garlic are a good alternative to fresh garlic. Clinical studies have found, however, that garlic does not cause significant differences in the levels of lipoproteins, triglycerides, and other fatty acids in children.
  • Grape seed extracts may help alleviate symptoms of seasonal allergies.

I became interested in chewing sticks, the forerunners of the modern toothbrush, while browsing through Gunn’s ­Domestic Medicine (1831), by John Gunn, M.D. Of the twigs of flowering dogwood (Cornus florida), Gunn wrote, “These are toothbrushes of nature’s presenting and are infinitely better than those of hogs’ bristles.” “The young branches stripped of their bark, and rubbed with their ends against the teeth, render them extremely white,” reiterated Dr. Peter Good in his Family Flora (1845).


Sounded good, and dogwoods are plentiful where I live in Arkansas, so I tried one. Never has a toothbrush or toothpaste left my teeth and gums feeling so clean or refreshed. The dogwood sticks reach into those hard-to-brush chinks between and behind teeth better than any toothbrush I’ve ever used.

I cut a fresh dogwood twig 1/8 to 3/16 inch across and 4 inches long and peel the bark back an inch or two on one end. Smaller twigs tend to split at the ends; larger ones are too tough. Gently gnawing the twig end for a few minutes softens and separates the fibers, creating a fine brush. I rub the brush into every nook and cranny of my teeth for five or ten minutes, then gently massage my gums with it. The hardness of dogwood and the ease with which its fibers form a natural brush make this slightly bitter wood perfect for this purpose.

Folk wisdom

More than once, I’ve walked into an Ozark country store with a dogwood stick dangling from my lips and heard an old-timer exclaim that he hadn’t seen anyone using a “chaw stick” for years. According to Memory P. F. Elvin-Lewis of Washington University, an authority on traditional cultures’ use of plants in dentistry, twigs of spicebush (Lindera benzoin) and smooth sumac (Rhus glabra) and stalks of horsetail (Equisetum spp.) were popular chewing sticks in the Ozarks, while those of black gum (Nyssa sylvatica), black birch (Betula lenta), and sassafras (Sassafras albidum) were used in Appalachia. Chewing sticks from a wide variety of plants are still used in parts of Africa, Asia, and South America.

Many Native American groups used herbs, as well as ­fibrous plant materials, sinews, bones, or toothpicks, for oral hygiene and dental care. The Thompson people of the Pa- cific Northwest chewed sumac root to treat sore mouths and tongues. The Chippewa used a tea of sumac blossoms to soothe teething infants. The Osage, Delaware, and Cherokee used red willow (Salix lucida) twigs as chewing sticks, and both Native Americans and white settlers favored chewing sticks made from the twigs of sweet gum (Liquidambar styraciflua).

7/16/2014 7:09:07 AM

It's amazing how much dental care has changed over the last hundred years, I didn't even know about the dogwoods being used for teeth care until now. I might give it a try, just for fun, but I know I can http://www.newteethnow.com/ about ways to keep my teeth healthy.

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