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Prickly Ash

Common names: Toothache tree, American prickly ash

Botanical names: Zanthoxylum clava-herculis, Zanthoxylum americanum

Photo

© Martin Wall

Parts used and where grown

The bark and sometimes the berries of these two American trees are used as medicine. There are many other trees in this genus that grow on other continents, including Chinese prickly ash (Zanthoxylum bungeanum), which grows in Asia.

Prickly ash has been used in connection with the following conditions (refer to the individual health concern for complete information):

Science Ratings Health Concerns
1Star

Indigestion

Insufficient salivation

Rheumatism

Toothache

3Stars Reliable and relatively consistent scientific data showing a substantial health benefit.
2Stars Contradictory, insufficient, or preliminary studies suggesting a health benefit or minimal health benefit.
1Star For an herb, supported by traditional use but minimal or no scientific evidence. For a supplement, little scientific support and/or minimal health benefit.

Historical or traditional use (may or may not be supported by scientific studies)

Many eastern Native American tribes valued prickly ash as a remedy for upset stomach, sore throats, aching muscles, skin infections, to stimulate saliva flow, and various other conditions.1 Eclectic physicians (doctors who recommended herbal medicines) in the United States at the end of the 19th century continued the traditional uses of prickly ash, primarily as a digestive aid, to strengthen the nervous system, and for cholera.2 The bark was also widely used by herbalists to treat rheumatic conditions.3 Prickly ash is also considered an alterative in traditional herbalism, meaning it enhances the body’s ability to fight against and recover from all manner of difficulties.4 Chinese prickly ash (Zanthoxylum simulans) is used for similar indications as its American relative as well as for killing parasites.5

Active constituents

Prickly ash bark contains alkaloids and a volatile oil. The fruit is rich in the volatile oil. Little research has been done specifically on the constituents or actions of American prickly ash. Preliminary Chinese trials have reportedly found that oral use of Chinese prickly ash berries can alleviate pain due to indigestion, gallbladder disease, or ulcers, as well as eliminating pinworms.6 Herculin, an alkamide in the plant, produces a localized numbing effect on the tongue when consumed.7 Whether this explains the historical use of prickly ash for toothaches remains to be confirmed in clinical trials.

How much is usually taken?

A tea of prickly ash is made by simmering 1–2 teaspoons (5–10 grams) of the bark for 10–15 minutes. Three cups (750 ml) per day are recommended.8 Alternatively, a tincture, 1/2–3/4 teaspoon (2–4 ml) three times per day, may also be used.9 Prickly ash is best taken just before meals. Traditionally, the bark was chewed to relieve tooth pain.10

Are there any side effects or interactions?

There are no known side effects from using the amounts of prickly ash noted above. Since it stimulates digestive function, prickly ash should best be avoided in conditions such as ulcerative colitis, peptic ulcer disease, or gastroesophageal reflux. Some herbal experts suggest that prickly ash be avoided by pregnant women because it may stimulate menstruation and increase risk of a miscarriage.11

At the time of writing, there were no well-known drug interactions with prickly ash.

References:

1. Vogel VJ. American Indian Medicine. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1970, 352–4.

2. Felter HW. Eclectic Materia Medica, Pharmacology and Therapeutics. Sandy, OR: Eclectic Medical Publications, 1922, 1998, 697–8.

3. Foster S. 101 Medicinal Herbs. Loveland, CO: Interweave Press, 1998, 160–1.

4. Hoffmann D. The New Holistic Herbal, 3rd ed. Shaftesbury, Dorset, UK: Element, 1990, 225.

5. Bensky D, Gamble A, Kaptchuk T. Chinese Herbal Medicine Materia Medica, rev ed. Seattle: Eastland Press, 1993, 304–5.

6. Bensky D, Gamble A, Kaptchuk T. Chinese Herbal Medicine Materia Medica, rev ed. Seattle: Eastland Press, 1993, 304–5.

7. Foster S. 101 Medicinal Herbs. Loveland, CO: Interweave Press, 1998, 160–1.

8. Hoffmann D. The New Holistic Herbal, 3rd ed. Shaftesbury, Dorset, UK: Element, 1990, 225.

9. Hoffmann D. The New Holistic Herbal, 3rd ed. Shaftesbury, Dorset, UK: Element, 1990, 225.

10. Vogel VJ. American Indian Medicine. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1970, 352–4.

11. Brinker F. Herb Contraindications and Drug Interactions. Sandy, OR: Eclectic Medical Publications, 1998, 113.

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