TOOTHACHE TREE FOUND ON GALLANTS CHANNEL NATURE TRAIL IN BEAUFORT!
by Helen Aitken
In mid-July 2023, Keith Rittmaster, NCMM Natural Science Curator, discovered a relatively scarce tree while hiking on the Gallants Channel Nature Trail, Leg #1, near the Bonehenge Whale Center in Beaufort. The three-foot juvenile Toothache Tree was located at the edge of a cleared path that opened into a woodland canopy.
The Toothache Tree, Zanthoxylum clava-herculis, is also known as Southern Prickly Ash, Prickly Ash, Hercules Club, Pepperbark, and Tickle Tongue. It has a range along the coastal plains from Virginia to Florida and Texas.
In North Carolina, it grows in maritime forests, dunes, riverbanks, and island bluffs, yet this specimen was farther inland than expected. Mr. Rittmaster surmised this plant had come from a seed a bird had dropped on the trail, the perfect place to grow.
These deciduous woodland trees thrive in sand, loam (silt), and soil with good drainage, needing at least 6 hours of full sunlight, they tolerate the heat easily. A mature tree may grow to 40 feet with a canopy width of 12-15 feet. The mature tree is easily identified by thorny protrusions along the stems and central trunk that deter deer or other animals.
The Toothache Tree has green leathery, lanceolate compound leaves arranged alternately among intermittent thorns along the twigs and leaf stems. At the crown, fragrant yellow flowers appear April-May, attracting pollinators. It’s also the larval host of the Giant Swallowtail butterfly, Papilio cresphontes. Black and yellow swallowtail caterpillars eat the leaves and young shoots before creating a chrysalis on the tree. After the flowers are spent, brown fruit appears July-September, they split open, revealing a shiny red-brown to black seed that birds and small mammals eat.
The mature tree’s most distinctive characteristic is that its bark grows around the thorns and protrudes outward, forming corky-pyramidal one-inch prickles, which look like strange teeth and hint at its possible use. Sometimes the thorn tip will remain exposed for years until it’s broken off or worn down.
Nature often provides suitable remedies for common illnesses. Historically, Native Americans and early colonists chewed the leaves and bark to alleviate tooth maladies, as recorded in A New Voyage to Carolina by John Lawson, edited with notes and an introduction by Hugh Talmage Leflerin 1967. When chewed, oils are released, producing a tingling, numbing sensation on the gums and tongue, hence the name Tickle Tongue. A leaf’s effects last several minutes, whereas chewing the bark lasts much longer. The leaf’s taste isn’t unpleasant- like mild spearmint or peppermint, reflecting another name, Pepperbark.
Some literature references the bark as aromatic and slightly bitter since it belongs to the citrus family, Rutaceae. Jeannie Kraus, retired NCMM Natural Science Curator, recalls that the leaves and seeds tasted more like grapefruit. To increase the numbing sensation, one might need to chew on several leaves for extended periods, or chew and suck on tender bark.
Ms. Kraus has identified Toothache Trees at Bird Shoal, Core Banks, and Bogue Banks in Carteret County and Hammock’s Beach in Onslow County. Her reaction to Rittmaster’s finding wasn’t surprising since that area has similar acid-based soils with the appropriate environmental conditions. “A range extension may have occurred, and tree groupings may arise from other dropped seeds or sprouts from creeping roots,” said Ms. Kraus.
Additional characteristics of the Toothache Tree are noteworthy. The bark extract is toxic to fish, and in Texas, several beetle species use the tree as a host. The bark and berries have also been used for circulation problems and inflammation- the oils increase stomach acids however they may decrease the effects of H-2 blockers found in medications like Tagamet, Pepcid, or Prilosec. However, no scientific evidence substantiates beneficial medicinal properties, and different side effects have been observed from its prolonged use.
John Lawson’s book also described Toothache Tree roots being cathartic as an emetic, causing vomiting when necessary (much like syrup of ipecac), and for cachexia, which is a sudden loss of appetite and weight loss from severe conditions like cancer. Unfortunately, many ways to administer the doses for these ancient remedies have been lost and should not be used today without medical verification.
According to Fort Macon Park Superintendent Randy Newman, several Toothache Trees are located along the park’s nature trail, and one is easily found at mile marker 2.5. These do not have permanent identification labels, but Keith Rittmaster placed a temporary yellow identification flag at the tree’s base on Gallant’s Channel Nature Trail.
Mr. Rittmaster encourages hikers to find the Toothache Tree using photos and descriptions from a plant identification book, especially before ingesting leaves, and as a precaution, watch out for thorns and use mosquito spray.
Helen Aitken is a freelance writer, former Science Educator, and volunteer at the NC Maritime Museum.
Special thanks to Tonyé Doukpolagha, Circulation Technician, Carteret County Public Library System, Beaufort, N.C. for all the research information used in this article.
General info: https://www.carolinanature.com/trees/zacl.html
Growing conditions, prey, and pictures: https://www.wildflower.org/plants/result.php?id_plant=ZACL
Commonality, and pictures: https://www.carolinanature.com/trees/zacl.html
Local journalism: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pN6f7yEaovk
In-depth information, potency, medicinal use, etc: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8272177/#:~:text=zanthoxyloides%20are%20used%20for%20treating,pain%20%5B21%2C22%5D.
Giant Swallowtail: https://bygl.osu.edu/node/1175
Documentation of findings: https://www.govinfo.gov/content/pkg/CZIC-qh87-3-t33-1984/html/CZIC-qh87-3-t33-1984.htm
A New Voyage to Carolina, John Lawson, edited, notes and introduction by Hugh Talmage Lefler in 1967.