The crippling pain of a toothache can occur at inconvenient times – perhaps when far from your dentist or even your emergency first aid kit. Because of the potentially intense pain and potentially critical health concerns associated with a tooth infection, wild herbs to treat toothache is an important category of medicinals to become familiar with in preparation for emergencies in the bush.
I mentioned three herbal remedies (the other two were oil pulling and shiatsu / acupressure). Of the three, only one related to herbs common in the wild in North America. I chose to focus on Barberry (Berberis spp.), though it is a representative of the group – the berberine-containing antimicrobials. Others include Goldthread (Coptis spp.) and Oregon Grape Root (formerly Berberis but now Mahonia aquifolium). These and the other berberine-containing antimicrobials are great toothache remedies, and will be discussed in detail below. The other two remedies in that article, though “natural”, won’t be easily found in the North American forests. Clove is from Indonesia, and besides it is typically the essential oil that is used for toothaches. Toothache Plant (Spilanthes spp.) is largely of the tropics. It can be grown here (quite easily, actually), but I do not know it in the wild of even the warm locations I have been to in North America. So, what other toothache remedies do we have around?
Lately, I have been focusing on Barberry (Berberis spp.) in regards to this group. It is a common invasive where I live (I harvest it regularly as part of maintaining my property in New York state). It also has the genus name that is the source of the name “berberine” – for the constituent that gives the roots of these plants a yellow color and strong medicinal properties. Plus, for many years Goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis) has been in the spotlight to the point that this native plant has been overharvested. There are different virtues to the various berberine-containing species. For instance, Goldenseal roots are fleshy and are therefore easier to harvest and process than the woody roots of the prickly shrub Barberry. For this reason, Goldenseal is a good herb to grow if you don’t have it locally abundant in the wild. In the bush, it is basically a matter of finding whatever species you can.
Barberry species are common in some areas (often invasive). Once harvested, the inner bark can be scraped off the root. It can be packed directly onto the tooth or into the cavity. Oregon Grape Root, also being shrubby (though small), is similar (See image – the root bark is scraped, showing the yellow inner bark. Also take note of the bowl full of edible berries. These pictures were taken in Montana.) Goldthread is so-named because the rhizomes are thin and string-like. The Chinese species used in medicine is much more fleshy. Goldenseal is fleshy and can be easily chopped for making tinctures or chewed on for direct treatment of toothache. Chinese medicine also utilizes a species of Skullcap (Scutellaria baicalensis) with berberine-containing roots.
Phellodendron is another berberine-containing herb commonly used in Chinese medicine. Often the three Phellodendron (Huang Bai), Goldthread (Huang Lian), and Skullcap (Huang Qin) are used together, perhaps with other non-berberine-containing “yellows” like Astragalus. Many websites claim that the medicinal actions of berberine are unverified. (Who knows if it is really berberine that is the main active constituent anyway? And certainly each herb has countless active chemical constituents.) However, the berberine-containing herbs from all over the world make up one of the best examples of verification in herbal medicine from different parts of the world. To the best of my knowledge, all cultures that had access to yellow, berberine-containing roots figured out their medicinal uses.
In addition to a distinct and very useful antimicrobial activity, Barberry and these other herbs are very good for stimulating the liver and gallbladder (take note, for gallbladder attacks are another medical emergency worth preparing for and herbal remedies can be very useful). They are the quintessential bitter, “heat-clearing” herbs. The bitter taste indicates cooling, cleansing actions. “Heat-clearing” refers to the antimicrobial and antiinflammatory properties. These herbs are often the best antibiotics around. However, because of their strong bitter taste people generally don’t want to use them. Plus, as with all herbs of powerful effect, there are some cautions and contraindications.
Regarding products available for sale, tincture can be quite useful to treat toothaches. Perhaps, ideal is powder. Powdered Goldenseal is often available. Because of overharvest of native wild stands it is generally best to buy powder made from (organically) cultivated roots rather than from wildcrafted stock. I would discourage it altogether, except that it really does work like a charm. Very good to know about. The powder can be applied directly to the trouble area. It is also possible to tuck dried material into the gums near the affected tooth. For instance, a Chinatown apothecary would likely have slices of Huang Lian that could be placed right between the cheek and gum. Whether from the wild or from the store “chewing” these roots (like tobacco – chewed a little and tucked into the cheek) is a great way to keep the medicine local.
Coneflower (Echinacea spp. – the genus name is also used as the common name) is one of the best-known herbal remedies, made famous right alongside Goldenseal in the simple American formula Echinacea / Goldenseal that used to be the quintessential herbal antibiotic formula. Unfortunately, many of the Echinacea products on the market are basically worthless due to the fact that Echinacea has a short shelf life as a dried herb. Best products, in general, are tinctures made from the fresh root, flower, or seed (the leaf and stem are less potent). The dried material does hold up for a little while, but not long.
If you happen to live in an area where Echinacea grows wild, or if you find some in a flower garden, you can simply pick it fresh to chew on it. If the cone part of the flower is still fresh, you can cut into it to and remove the center for use. You can also unearth a piece of the root. It is easy to figure out which part is most potent by chewing on it. Echinacea, like Toothache Plant (Spilanthes spp.), creates a distinct tingling sensation on the lips, tongue, or whatever part of your mouth it touches. It also encourages saliva production. The more you tingle and salvate, the better. It indicates medicinal potency. It also numbs the ache. You can also compare different species by taste.
Species of Zanthoxylum also have a tendency to produce saliva and a sensation that helps relieve pain. In this way, it is very much like Echinacea and Toothache Plant. Sometimes, Zanthoxylum is known at “Toothache Tree”. The name Prickly Ash is in reference to the pinnately compound leaves, which are similar to Ash (Fraxinus spp.). Prickly Ash and Ash are not very closely related. There are many species. I am not sure how all their medicinal properties compare, If you live near them or are travelling through an area where they grow. It is worth getting to know them. You might even find a toothpick, as the name Prickly is not in vain! The bark is the main part used. It is available through herb shops as well as in the wild.
Calamus, or Sweet Flag, (Acorus spp.) is another very interesting medicinal plant. Like the berberine-containing herbs, the medicinal virtues of Calamus have been verified by many cultures all over the world. It has been a major medicinal of European and Chinese herbal traditions and has been among the most revered herbs of Ayurveda (the ancient healing tradition of India) and Native American medicine. Several Native tribes have used Calamus for toothaches. Moerman (Native American Ethnobotany) lists that the Blackfoot, Chippewa, Cree, Creek, Mahuna, Okanagan, Paiute, Saanich, Shoshoni, and Thomson used Calamus as a toothache remedy.
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Unfortunately, one of the main side-effects of Calamus that is relatively common is that it can cause or exacerbate heartburn. This clashes a bit with the chewing method of administration I have been promoting for the treatment of toothache. Perhaps, for mild toothaches a small amount of Calamus would be beneficial and tolerated by most. But with higher doses, such as one with an intense toothache might be driven towards, there will be a higher rate of intolerance. Try a little first.
Calamus has many benefits, mostly relating to its pungent, aromatic, and somewhat bitter flavor. It stimulates digestion, opens the lungs, and benefits the mind. Native people have traditionally used it to help with concentration and as a stimulant when travelling or for ceremonial dance. Likewise, yogic and Taoist traditions have used Calamus for the mind. It is a primary remedy for lung congestion.
The name Sweet Flag is because it looks similar to Iris (the leaves- not the flower), which can be called Blue Flag or Yellow Flag, etc. (according to the flower color). “Sweet” because it smells nice (such as when walked on), not because it tastes sweet. If you happen to walk on it, there is a good chance your feet will be wet, as it mostly grows in swampy conditions. It is also called “Swamp Root”.
Spruce (Picea spp.) and its evergreen relatives are readily available toothache remedies. I mention Spruce as the representative genus here because they tend to be pitchy and seemed to have been favored by Natives for toothaches. The pitch is antimicrobial, pain relieving, and can be applied directly to the trouble area. It can also be used to pack a cavity to fight infection and close the hole. Cedar, Pine, Hemlock, Fir, and Juniper can likewise be used. The needles and inner bark are also medicinal.
Barberry Photo Courtesy of: