Leaf of the Day: The Toothache Tree and a Swallowtail Plant

There are times, when looking at plants, that I am torn between recording a fascinating story or an interesting image. As in life, often the most unprepossessing looking things have the best stories and after yesterday and the dentist I could not help but write about the Toothache Tree, Zanthoxylum americanum the Prickly Ash, the Suterberry or Tickle Tongue and its close relative Zanthoxylum clava-herculis Hercules Club.

The tree at Leu has very few leaves at the moment, so the drawing is less than exciting and even when flowering it is a modest tree, but one which has more to shout about than most. This one at the Gardens is Zanthoxylum clava-herculis. The Hercules Club name refers to the possibility that a club with thorns in it was used by Hercules.

Bronze Mace from Willingham Fen, Cambridgeshire”, The Journal of Roman Studies (1949).
This looks as though it would have been far more useful for my toothache than chewing a leaf.

The tree trunk, as below in the photo I took back in July, will develop very sharp downward pointing spines which protrude from corky bumps on the trunk . The smooth trunk is of the smaller tree at Leu which has no spines yet but the same mottled and spotted bark.

The compound leaves are covered with fine hair when they are young, becoming smooth as they mature and have spots containing aromatic oils on the outer edges and around the central vein. Even on this old fallen leaf I am holding you can see the clear white dots, which are full of oil. The smell is beautiful ..a little lemony.

There will be strange looking green colored flowers on old wood prior to the leaves and then seed capsules and later shiny seeds which are “edible” (if numbing) and taste spicy.

Photos of Zanthoxylum americanum by Steven J. Baskauf from Vanderbilt University Arboretum. here

The native Americans and early settlers used this tree to relieve toothache by chewing the bark or crushing it to made a poultice for their gums. The active ingredient is an alkaloid which I can confirm produces a quite pleasant numbing effect. I just chewed a leaf.
It was also used by native Americans for almost every other ailment you can imagine. Poultices for external wounds and infusions for diseases as diverse as gonorrhea, sore throats, and stiff joints and muscles.They passed their knowledge on to the early settlers and between 1820 and 1926, prickly ash bark was listed in the Pharmacopoeia of the United States and regularly in use for digestive disorders, to reinforce the nervous system and as a cure for cholera. ‘The Great Events of Great Britain’ by Samuel Neil, 1866, carries this entry for 1736, ” The toothache tree brought from North Carolina” and there are records that the bark was imported from New York into England in the 1800s and sold in Covent Garden as a cure for rheumatism. It is still used by herbalists for circulatory, arthritic and rheumatic problems and because it improves blood flow as a treatment for varicose veins.

Mark Catesby who painted this delightful Ground Dove in 1731 with an accompanying Hercules Club recorded that the birds liked to eat the berries and that their flesh, when cooked, was aromatically flavoured.
This seems to be an all round good tree. I look forward to making some drawings when there is something more to draw.

However I did see another new plant nearby today which has really pretty leaves and is an unusual plant in this exotic form although Christias have been known since the 18th century.

photos from Tropiflora.com in Sarasota here..who say they are good for terrariums..

The Swallowtail plant Christia obcordata has just been planted appropriately in the Butterfly Garden near to the Hercules Club. Originating in SE Asia it has very pretty leaves which are triangular and come in a variety of colours and they do look like little butterflies. It’s undoubtably pretty but there is not much more to say about it… I am tempted to make a comment about society here..? I ran out of time to finish them..


Toothache Tree Leaf

Leaf of the Day: The Toothache Tree and Tarpon Sponges

On Friday evening we stayed at Tarpon Springs. All you have to do is forget for a moment the busy traffic on highway 19, hammering relentlessly up and down, to and from Tampa to the Panhandle. If you can do that you barely need to suspend your disbelief at all to imagine you are on a small Greek island inlet. Tourist shops and small restaurants line Dodecanese Avenue, bouzouki is your background music and elderly Greek men sit together and chat as the sun goes down. The shops are full of sponges and souvenirs and fishing boats and trip boats line the quay. When a friend suggested we go to Tarpon I really had no idea it would be so Greek! We only stayed overnight enough time to have some excellent fish and meet a young man the Sawgrass Tiki bar, who still dives for sponges with his uncle.

It’s a small, still dangerous, but profitable business having recovered from the “red tide” blight of 1946. (the red tide still seems to be a bit of a problem here) There is an informative website here about the Florida sponge industry.

images from interesting old Florida post card’s page here

Saturday, and we are heading north to Cedar Key, but stopping on the way at Homosassa for a really good breakfast at the very friendly Bear’s Pa Cafe, a wander round the remains of the old Sugar mill and to learn something about the scalloping season which had started at the beginning of July. The river inlet was teeming with boats big and small and families old and young all going out to the Gulf to gather scallops.

Continuing up to Crystal Springs, we stopped at the Crystal River Archaeological State Park which houses the remains of a very important pre-Columbian, Native American site with burial mounds, a temple platform, and 4 ancient stele.

The six-mound complex is one of the longest continuously occupied sites in Florida. For 1,600 years the site served as an imposing ceremonial center for Native Americans. People traveled to the complex from great distances to bury their dead and conduct trade. It is estimated that as many as 7,500 Native Americans may have visited the complex every year.

Should you visit and bump into Michael, one of the park rangers, he will bring the whole place alive for you, showing you how to see the figure in the carved stele and to my great delight taking us “off path” to see some native plants and trees I didn’t know. I now do know what poison ivy looks like and what its horrible effects can be, I understand more about the old uses for wax myrtle, the water locust, and the needle palm. He also identified this for me,

The huge lubber grasshopper. Big, bright and tasting disgusting due to some toxic froth they produce, they meander about, safe in the knowledge that their colours alone are enough to warn off most predators. ” even those big old alligators spit ’em out” said Michael. He also introduced me to what he calls the squirrel proof Toothache Tree. It’s the Prickly Ash, the Tickle Tongue Tree, or Hercules Club. The leaves and berries have a lemony fragrance and the bark and leaves contain alkaloids which cause numbness of the mouth, teeth and tongue if chewed so allegedly relieving toothache. It has large spine-tipped pyramid shaped projections,on the trunk, (yet another spiny plant) which turn slightly downwards so discouraging even the most valiant squirrel. It was a pretty tree I thought. I was sorry I could not get a leaf to draw as they were all too high for all of us.

Michael has also brewed and “quite enjoyed” the yaupon holly drink. My respect for him grew by the minute. I have to admit I am now very curious to try it myself, so the next time I find myself flagging and low on energy I am going to reach for a couple of yaupon leaves instead of a coffee… but then look where curiosity got the cat..