Toothache grass, (Ctenium aromaticum) is a genus of perennial grass in the true grass family, Poaceae. As mentioned, it is found in the Southeastern United States, however, there are about 20 types of toothache grass found in Africa and the New World.
As the name implies, toothache grass has been specifically used to treat toothaches, and alleviate pain. In Africa, toothache grass can be quite common in grazed areas and is often used to treat pain associated with bee stings and dog bites. Stateside, it isn’t commonly used at all. Mostly because it isn’t commonly found and its medicinal benefits are not well known.
How to Identify Toothache Grass
It’s a fun, twisted, curly-topped grass that generally grows about 2 to 6 feet tall (think hay in height, diameter, and color). Honestly, just check out the photos. We could go into the technicalities of toothache grass inflorescence, but one look at a photo and you’ll know it when you see it.
And if you’re curious to catch this plant in flower, it generally does so in a June to August timeframe.
How to Use Toothache Grass
Generally, the most popular method is to pull the plant by the base of the stem, being careful not to break the connection between the base and thick tuber root. The root is the most potent part and is most desirable to produce the wanted effects. However, some have found the lower stem to be effective as well. That way, there’s more of the entire plant to use rather than just the bottom.
Because of the way toothache grass is used, the entire plant has to be uprooted and killed in order to receive the medicinal value. This is another reason it is hard to find. People are going into areas with known populations and taking all they see. Please be mindful of over harvesting.
Processing of this plant is to pull up the tubers and cut off the top of the stem, preserving the bottom and tubers. I would also recommend peeling away the top layer sheath of the stem, and of course, to wash the tuber that has been buried in the ground.
The last part of this process is up to you: Dry it, powderize, chew it fresh, chop it, and incorporate it into your personal tonic or tea, make tinctures, grind it up and place in capsules — whatever! The choice is yours.
My favorite is simply chewing the tubers. My second favorite is getting new friends to try it. It’s always comical to see their reactions to the tingly sensation.
If you’re interested in establishing wild grasses on your homestead, it is an excellent choice for that — even if you aren’t keen on the medicinal uses. Toothache grass will attract birds and butterflies onto your property, if you want to incorporate wildlife habitat.
Fun Fact: In Africa, the top part of the stems is often used to create roof thatching.
Benefits of Toothache Grass
As already explained, this plant is useful in helping with toothaches. It can also greatly reduce the sensation of a sore throat.
Toothache grass can be particularly helpful if you’re experiencing what some people like to refer to as cottonmouth (dry mouth) as it is often used as a sialagogue (an agent that increases saliva). I can attest from personal experience that this plant causes a strong numbing sensation and an excess production of saliva.
Now, to get into the “How?” of it. Toothache grass contains three natural anesthetics: pellitorine, dodecadienamide, and isoaffinin. These anesthetics are also referred to as tingle molecules — a name I personally like better.
Dodecadienamide and isoaffinin have been used in traditional medicine for the specific purpose of dentistry work and oral medications. Isoaffinin has even been placed in chewing gum, oral products, colognes, and some topical cosmetics for the tingling and soothing sensation it produces.
Be Environmentally Conscious When Harvesting Toothache Grass
Given its very characteristic appearance, if you’ve seen it before, you’ll immediately recognize it. When I was in school and learned about toothache grass, my professor emphasized conservation-minded awareness. To paraphrase:
Yes, this is a cool species, but we don’t teach about it until you’re a couple years into your degree and better able to understand conservation because if a bunch of excited folks who don’t care about conservation know about this species, they’ll likely come out to these small areas where it’s found and harvest way too much, hurting the local populations and wiping out the species.
With that problem addressed, I would strongly advise you to be environmentally conscious if you’re ever harvesting toothache grass. Go by Robin Kimmerer’s approach from her book “Braiding Sweetgrass.” Don’t take the first plant you see, because it maybe the only one. If you find more,take less than half of what is locally available.Then wait a growth season or more before returning. If you desire more than the amount this method offers, find other spots to harvest, or consider cultivating your own.
You can order seeds online (it’s unlikely you’ll find them in a local store, but try anyway just to see). If you’re purchasing seeds, make sure the scientific name matches (Ctenium aromaticum).