Mother Earth Living

Have You Heard of This Herb: Szechuan Buttons

After printing the Mother Earth Living article “The Best Herbal Remedies You’ve Never Heard Of,” I’ve been interested in uncovering more largely unknown herbal remedies—so let’s delve right into the research behind even more unusual herbs from across the globe! Today we’ll investigate the Szechuan button (Acmella oleracea; syn. Spilanthes oleracea), a flowering herb that can also be found under the pseudonym “toothache plant”.

Note: As research on this herb is minimal and ongoing, be sure to discuss taking it with your health-care provider before incorporating it into your health regimen.

My First Experience with Szechuan Buttons

I first encountered this herb on a trip to Vegas with a couple of my girlfriends. We went out on the town where we each purchased a fabulous summer cocktail from a trendy lounge bar. The cocktail was named “The Verbena,” as it is made with a mixture of citrus ingredients, including lemon juice, lemongrass syrup and Kaffir lime leaves; and we were promised that it would be one of the most unique cocktails we would ever drink. On top of the cocktail floated a small, yellow bud—a Szechuan button. After biting into this innocent-looking garnish my mouth immediately went numb, followed by an intense cooling sensation—a unique cocktail indeed!

What are Szechuan Buttons?

A Szechuan button, also known as a buzz button or electric button, is a low-growing plant native to Brazil that blooms repeatedly summer through fall. The plant produces yellow/red gumdrop-sized flower buds that completely numb the mouth once bitten into. Although there is hint of a bitter, grassy flavor, I wouldn’t even say these buds have much flavor. In my opinion a Szechuan button has less of a flavor, and more of a sensation. First your mouth and tongue start to tingle, as if electricity is coursing through it, then everything starts to cool down. It can even cause a sudden increase in saliva production.

Although this herb has become trendy in gourmet restaurants and bars, where it is used as a fun ingredient to liven up dishes and cocktails, the Szechuan button has long been regarded for its health benefits, especially in South America, Africa and Asia. This flower heads of this herb contains up to 1.25 percent spilanthol, a fatty acid amide that contains natural analgesic properties. Similar to capsaicin, this compound is what is responsible for the tingling sensation: It triggers a reaction in the trigeminal nerve pathway, which is responsible for motor and sensory functions in the mouth.

Because of its spilanthol content, some countries use the numbing qualities of this plant to relieve toothaches (thus the “toothache plant”), as well as throat and gum infections. This plant has also been used to treat blood parasites. (In vitro studies have shown that the plant can act as an antibiotic against a variety of bacteria, including E. coli, salmonella and staph.) Szechuan buttons may even help improve digestion and help overcome nausea, and it has been shown to have a strong diuretic action in rats.

In non-medicinal uses, Indian manufactures use the buds to flavor chewing tobacco. The raw leaves are used to flavor salads, soups and meats in Brazil and India. People also use this herb topically—an extract of Acmella oleracea can reportedly reduce muscle tension and facial wrinkles caused by tense facial muscles, making it a great ingredient in anti-aging beauty products.

How to Use Szechuan Buttons

Worldwide, the flower heads of this plant are most popularly used fresh, or dried and powdered, although the roots and leaves can be used as well. To use this plant orally, make a decoction or infusion from the leaves or flowers. (A mouth rinse of a spilanthes extract is excellent for gum health.)

These buttons are quite costly, selling for about $50 a bag of 30 buttons (available from Marx Foods). However, you can try growing this plant at home: Buy a packet of 30 seeds for $3.50 from Terroir Seeds. Grow it as a beautiful ornamental, or to harvest for its fun electric-packed buttons.

Gina DeBacker is the associate editor at Mother Earth Living, where she manages the health section of the magazine.

  • Published on Jul 1, 2014
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