Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Acmella oleracea - Spilanthes - Better than Botox®?

Acmella oleracea - Paracress - Still known under its old names Spilanthes oleracea and Spilanthes acmella and commonly referred to as Eyeball Plant, Peek-A-Boo Plant, Toothache Plant, Spot Plant, Prickelblume, Alphabet Plant, Jambu, Australian Cress, and Brazil Cress. It has nothing in common with real cresses, but is named after the Brazilian province of Pará.  The plant has been assigned various scientific names over the years., and although called a Spilanthes, the latest expert opinion by Robert Jansen (after six years of intense study) is that this plant is best considered a member of the closely related genus Acmella.
The genus name Spilanthes means stained flower, from Greek spiloma (stain) and anthos (flower); the reference is to the dark pollen which stains the bright petals. The species name oleracea goes back to Latin holus, a leaf vegetable, and alludes to the edible leaves; acmella, refers to the plant's sharp pungency, Greek akme (point, peak), and Latin acer (acute, sharp).

Acmella oleracea is a small tender annual that grows to about 12-15 inches and will spread to 24-30 inches across. The leaves are dark green on top, and paler underneath; they are broad, egg-shaped, wavy-edged, rumply, and less than 3 inches long, leafing is primarily in opposite pairs.  Inconspicuous white hairs cover it. The stems, leafstalks, leafveins and flowerstalks are dark with bronzy or purplish tones.  The beautiful bronze green leaves offset the striking oval shaped flowers, which have no petals and instead exhibit a golden bud with a orangey-red center, giving it the look of an eyeball.

Acmella oleracea is thought to have been derived through cultivation from Acmella alba, a species native to Peru and Brazil.  It was probably introduced to the Indian Ocean Islands by the Portuguese and subsequently spread to East Africa by Indian labourers who came to work on railroad construction around 1900.

The most common and widespread medicinal use for Acmella oleracea is to treat toothache, throat and gum infections.  Chewing on the fresh or dried flower, or using the extract will help deaden tooth pain. It is not only topically anesthetic for gums and teeth, but it is also bacteriostatic, helping to fight tooth decay. 

A mouth rinse of spilanthes extract can be used daily to promote gum health, and chewing as little as a single bud of the plant can numb the mouth and reduce the pain of toothache for up to 20 minutes depending on the sensitivity of the person. The most promising research into the use of spilanthes is in its antibacterial properties. So far, in vitro testing has shown that the plant's extract has strong effect against E.coli, pseudomonas, salmonella, klebsiella pneumonae and staphylococcus albus, as well as inhibiting the growth of candida albicans.

The flower heads are used fresh, dried and powdered. The roots and leaves have been recommended as well.  The plant is further recommended as a cure for dysentery, rheumatism and malaria. The flower heads contain up to 1.25% of spilanthol, an antiseptic alkaloid which is effective at very low concentrations against blood parasites.  It also enhances the immune system. 

Spilanthes extract has been discovered to aid in saliva stimulation for people suffering from dry mouth.  A decoction or infusion of the leaves and flowers is a traditional remedy for stammering, toothache, stomatitis, and throat complaints.

Acmella oleracea extract is reported to reduce muscle tension when applied topically, and as such it aids to decrease facial lines and wrinkles that are partially caused by tense or contracted facial muscles.  Application of Acmella extract is reported to result in more relaxed facial muscle, and in turn, decreases visible wrinkles and age lines.  Some people compare it to BOTOX®, but without the toxic effects and without the need to inject it under the skin; making it a cheap and easy BOTOX® replacement.

Paracress has no particular odour, but when eaten it has an interesting flavour that slowly develops from pleasant and salty to a strong, tickling-burning pungency that leaves a numb feeling in the mouth.  

Culinary use of Paracress is almost restricted to tropical Brazil, where the herb is used in the cooking styles of the indigenous peoples.   Small amounts of  fresh shredded leaves add a unique flavour to salads. Cooked leaves lose their strong flavour and may be used as leafy greens. Both fresh and cooked leaves are used for stews in Northern parts of Brazil.  It is often combined with chillies and garlic to add flavor and vitamins to other foods, and the Paracress seems to offset the burning sensation of the chillies.

Eating a whole flower bud results in a light lemony-grassy taste, followed by an extremely strong tingling or numbing sensation and often excessive saliva production and a cooling sensation in the throat.  These buds are known as Buzz Buttons, Szechuan Buttons, Sansho Buttons, and Electric Buttons. In India, the buds are used as flavoring in chewing tobacco. 

In 2008, the magazine "Food & Wine" listed Acmella oleracea flowers on their "100 Tastes to Try" list, calling them "Sechuan Buttons" they quickly made their way into sushi, salads and cocktails.  In 2009 a restaurant in NYC called "Haru" used them in a drink called "Electriquila," (or "Electric Eel"), a cocktail featuring the tongue-tingling herb.  The drink is actually a margarita riff, with tequila, triple sec, yuzu (a citric seasoning base) and a splash of sake. The glass is moistened with lime juice and rimmed with salt and the button filaments. Haru also offered the “Electric Lavender,” a mix of tequila and Monin Lavender syrup,  with the Sechuan Button presented on the side to be sampled as you drink.  I don't know if they're still making them, but the next time I'm in NYC, I will be looking it up and will report back accordingly.

Acmella oleracea is a perennial in the tropics and sub-tropics, but may be grown as an annual in temperate regions. The seed germinates 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.  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 a pot, the plants will rapidly and all at once droop and wither due to lack of essential water and nutrients.  If the plant starts to droop before the soil has warmed up in the garden, transplant it to a larger pot. Transplant outdoors 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.

The plant may also be propagated by stem cuttings. Choose a stem which is already rooting. 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.

The leaf and buds may be harvested on an ongoing basis, as often as the plant can afford. If putting 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.  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 occurrence.  

On a personal note, this plant was introduced to me by one of the other gardeners at the community garden where I grow.  He said they were springing up all over his plots after self-seeding from last year's plants.  He gave me one and it is doing fine in my garden so far.  I live in Philadelphia, where the summers are nasty humid and the winters are as cold as any in the northeastern United States.  If you don't want to take a chance of losing your plant, dig it up and pot it, it makes a great potted plant, and looks nice in a hanging basket as well.

Resources include:

Gernot Katzer’s Spice Pages
B & T World Seeds
PROTA, Bosch, C.H., 2004
Dave's Garden

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