Tired of growing the same old petunias and marigolds every summer? Try growing the toothache plant instead! This odd-looking beauty is also known as the electric daisy, buzz buttons, the eyeball plant, Sichuan buttons, jambu, and even paracress – it has so many common names, it’s enough to make your head spin! But no matter what you call it, the toothache plant is one amazing addition to the garden. In this article, I’ll share some super-cool info about this annual herb, along with tips for growing it. Plus, the toothache plant not only looks amazing but also offers some really unique medicinal properties, too.
Meet the toothache plant
First, let’s address all those crazy common names for this plant known botanically as Spilanthes acmella (syn. Acmella oleracea). Toothache plant refers to the fact that the attractive golden flowers with a red center contain spilanthol, a natural anesthetic that produces a buzzing sensation and numbing when the flowers are placed in the mouth and gently chewed. This trait is also the reason for the other common names of buzz buttons and electric daisy. The toothache plant has been used medicinally for generations to reduce the pain of toothaches and gum infections due to its local anesthetic effect (more on the plant’s medicinal qualities in a later section).
It’s obvious when you see the round, bi-colored blooms how the plant also earned its nickname of the eyeball plant. Most modern gardeners grow this novel plant as an annual, although in warm climates with no freezing temperatures, it is a perennial. A member of the family Asteraceae, the toothache plant is native to South America, but it is now found around the world as a cultivated ornamental and medicinal plant. In some tropical regions it has naturalized. At maturity, the toothache plant reaches 12 to 18 inches in height and width, with thick, dark green leaves that have serrated margins. It only grows a few inches tall, preferring to spread out horizontally.
Toothache plant comes into flower in late spring. By mid-June in my Pennsylvania garden, it is in full bloom. The flowers are button-like and appear continuously throughout the growing season until the plant is killed by frost.
Where to grow the toothache plant
Toothache plant is very easy to grow. The plants most of us grow here in North America come from the nursery trade. They are started from seed or cuttings. There are a few cultivars that are worth seeking out for their larger flowers or bold coloration. ‘Lemon Drops’, which produces all-yellow flowers, and ‘Bullseye’, which has large, bi-colored blooms, are common varieties of toothache plant in the trade.
To grow toothache plant, select a site that receives at least 6 to 8 hours of full sun per day. If the plant does not receive enough sun, leggy growth and reduced flowering will be the result. Moist soil that is rich in organic matter is best, though the plant also does beautifully when grown in containers that have been filled with a mixture of potting soil and compost.
Planting tips for buzz buttons
You are most likely to find this member of the Asteraceae family for sale as transplants, but it is also possible to start seeds of the toothache plant yourself. Since they are warm weather-loving plants, start seeds indoors about 4 weeks prior to your last expected spring frost. The seeds require light to germinate, so don’t cover them with any potting soil; just broadcast them on the soil’s surface. Germination typically takes place in 7 to 14 days. Pot the seedlings into larger pots when they are about 3 weeks old. Then harden them off and move them out into the garden when the temperatures warm.
Caring for the eyeball plant
Since the toothache plant is intolerant of frost, don’t plant it outdoors until the danger of frost has passed. I wait about two weeks after my average last frost date to plant them into the garden. Planting instructions follow those typical of other annuals. Loosen the roots if they are circling around inside the pot before nestling the plant into its new planting hole. Water the plants in well and continue to provide irrigation until the plants are established and during dry spells.
Fertilize every two to three weeks with a diluted fish emulsion or liquid organic fertilizer for boosting blooms. Alternatively, you can fertilize at the start of the growing season with an organic granular fertilizer and then repeat with another application in late June.
Deadheading (removing the spent flowers) is a key to keeping the toothache plant in bloom all summer long. The plant is highly branched, with two new branches developing from the nodes beneath each spent flower. Use a pair of needle-nose pruners or garden scissors to remove the spent blooms every few days and you’ll be blessed with continuous blooms and fresh, green foliage all summer long.
How to take cuttings of the toothache plant
Toothache plant is also easy to propagate from stem cuttings. If you want more toothache plants, simply snip off a 6- to 8-inch-long portion of the stem and remove all but the top two leaves. Then dip the cut end of the stem into rooting hormone and insert it into a pot of sterile potting soil. Keep the cutting well-watered, and it won’t be long before roots form and you have a new plant. It’s a super easy process.
Medicinal uses for the toothache plant
Originally cultivated as an herbal medicine, toothache plant is now grown mostly as an ornamental here in North America, but that shouldn’t stop you from discovering the “buzz” of this plant for yourself. When you place a flower in your mouth and gently chew, the medicinal compounds are released and absorbed through the gums, lips, and tongue. The salivary glands kick into overdrive, producing the buzzing feeling and analgesic activity. It is reported to help with painful canker sores, sore throats, and even gastric ulcers. The antifungal properties are also reported to help with ringworm infections. I’ll be honest, though, and declare that you should discuss these treatments with your doctor first before relying on toothache plant to relieve what ails you.
That being said, the flower buds are safe to place in your own mouth or the mouths of your friends, to see what the buzz is all about. It’s kind of a hoot to see how surprised people are by the effects of this unique plant.
In addition to medicinal uses, the plant has culinary uses, too. The cooked and raw leaves are used to flavor soups and salads and other dishes. It has a unique flavor and is full of vitamins. When eaten, the leaves produce a warm, spicy feeling in your mouth that eventually causes tingling and numbness. It’s not dangerous, but it does feel weird. Interestingly, the leaves of toothache plant are a common ingredient in a popular soup from Brazil.
I hope you’ll give this oddball plant a try in your own garden. It’s definitely a conversation starter!
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