The botanical name for spilanthes (Spilanthes acmella) was first established in 1763 by Nikolaus Joseph von Jacquin. Spilanthes is derived from the Greek spilos for "spot" and anthos for "flower," in reference to the distinctive round 'spot' marking the center of its inflorescence (flower head). Common names for spilanthes include the electric button plant, electric daisy, Szechaun buttons, toothache plant, peek-a-boo plant, eyeball plant, buzz button, and other local names such as Jambu in Brazil.
In India, spilanthes has long been integrated into Ayurvedic medicine under its Sanskrit name Sarahattika and is used to support the immune system, improve digestion, treat headaches, relieve toothaches, heal infections of the throat and gums, and alleviate nausea.
From its origins in South America, spilanthes has since become widely distributed and cultivated for its rare and highly valued medicinal properties. Used for millennia by indigenous healers from the Amazon to Thailand to the Hindu Kush, scientific studies have confirmed spilanthes' significant antibacterial, antiviral, antifungal and antiprotozoal properties in addition to its powerful, beneficial sialogogue action.1 2 3 4 5 6
The Gift of a Plant
We can learn much about the essential qualities of a plant as its tangible-to-the-tongue flavors are explored; we can learn to appreciate the plant as the gift that it is, including its natural healing properties.
Six distinct qualities (referred to as organoleptic properties by flavor chemists) are experienced when one chews the spilanthes' flower head: green, bitter, numbing, electrical, tart, and lemon. The nuance or intensity of each of these sensory qualities can vary as a result of terroir, and may also be experienced to differing degrees by different individuals.
Many flavor (as well as therapeutic) qualities of a plant are associated with its essential oil constituents. These, in turn, are also influenced by its terroir. The essential oil distilled from spilanthes' fresh flowers contains high amounts of the phytocannabinoid β-caryophyllene, the flavor of which resembles black pepper. Other major constituents of spilanthes' essential oil include limonene (lemony flavour), thymol (a thyme-like flavour), cadinene ('green-like') and germacrene (spicy and woody flavor). These same essential oil compounds—along with many others—are present in other plants to varying degrees, giving each plant its distinctive aroma and flavor profile.
Spilanthes is one of the botanical realm's most powerful sialogogues, a substance that induces saliva production. It contains a potent, highly bioactive compound called spilanthol that stimulates our body’s innate salivation response. Spilanthol activates ion channels in the cell membranes of nerve fiber receptors on the tongue and within the oral cavity. Activation of these ion channels generates an exchange of charged ions between the inside and outside of the nerve cell, experienced in the mouth as a “vibratory chemesthetic sensation.” (That’s wow!) This electrical message is relayed along the nerve fibers and evokes a response from the trigeminal and facial nerves which subsequently signal the salivary glands to produce and release saliva.
Spilanthol triggers an 'electrifreshening' sensation in the mouth and stimulates our body's innate salivation response.