Tell the Dentist “Hold the Novocaine”—You’ve Got Toothache Tree

17 Sep

Wild Lime, Prickly-Ash

Zanthoxylum fagara


 Wild Lime is no real lime, although it is a native hammock-dwelling Citrus in the fragrant company of Torchwood (Amyris elemifera), Hercules Club (Zanthoxylum clavis-herculis), and many additional native and cultivated Florida Citrus species.  The approximately seven native zanthoxylums in the U.S. plus the 200 others worldwide have a rich history in human affairs.

Listing the umpteen afflictions historically treated with these bioactive trees would be tedious, so we’ll zoom in on a couple.  Zanthoxylum species are sometimes called Toothache Trees, and they do have well substantiated ability to numb the mouth dating back to pre-European applications, as reflected in diverse Native American names.  Pharmacological research has backed this up in a modern scientific context, and there is some interest in the plant’s chemistry relative to leukemia.  At a less sophisticated level, Zanthoxylum juice has turned up in commercial natural toothpastes.

Wild Lime fruits in September. Photo by JB

Crushed Zanthoxylum parts present a citrusy spicy fragrance, and serve most saliently as Sichuan Pepper from various Asian species.  The spice is also call “fagara,” giving today’s species its specific epithet.  Zanthoxylum means yellow wood, a self-explanatory name; the wood, bark, and roots yield a yellowish dye.

For gardeners who can live with bloodthirsty spines, Wild Lime is an attractive and tough smallish landscape tree or shrub tolerant of drought, of alkaline soils, and of life near the sea.  This and other ornamental native and non-native Citrus species are vectors of Citrus Greening and no doubt of additional ailments afflicting the Florida Citrus industry, and thus are unwelcome trucked commercially around the state.

The trees are dioecious, that is, separate male or female.  This is a remarkable reproductive system in a large woody plant where half of the individuals are devoted solely to pollen production.  But then again, the same can be said of mice and men.  The small dehiscent pods contain merely one black glossy seed.

Wild Lime is among the diverse Citrus species valuable as host plants for the Giant Swallowtail Butterfly whose larva looks like a bird dropping on the tree’s stem.  The endangered Schaus Swallowtail depends mostly on the related Torchwood, raising the question of Wild Lime serving potentially as a “plan B” for this swallowtail.

This post is a collaborative effort by John Bradford and George Rogers.


Posted by on September 17, 2011 in Wild Lime



5 responses to “Tell the Dentist “Hold the Novocaine”—You’ve Got Toothache Tree

  1. Laura Leggett

    May 18, 2013 at 9:36 am

    Wow that was strange. I just wrote an extremely long comment but after I clicked submit my comment didn’t show up. Grrrr… well I’m not writing all that over again. Anyhow, just wanted to say fantastic blog!Roofing Repair of Irving

    • George Rogers

      May 19, 2013 at 8:46 am

      Gald you merely said Grrr. That happens to me too, and I say other stuff. And thanks for the nice comment. Grrr.

  2. Michael Archetti

    February 15, 2014 at 4:30 pm

    Hey Professor, thanks for reminding me that these plants are host for such a beautiful swallowtail! I’ll have to try to get some Torchwood if that’s their favorite, but I may have to settle for Wild Lime if I can’t find any seeds. I see they may also eat Varnish Leaf; I guess I’ll find out since some of the seeds I got from our trip the other week already sprouted.

  3. George Rogers

    February 15, 2014 at 5:10 pm

    Citrus species aren’t sold much in plant nurseries because of the risk of spreading Citrus Greening and other diseases. Varnishleaf isn’t a citrus. It is available, and it is easy to grow. Sometimes we grow it in our summer plant propagation class using seeds collected on campus.

  4. Rick Schnellmann

    August 6, 2014 at 1:01 am

    Torchwood and Wild Lime available at Palm City Natives.

    Just a few of each still in nursery I think but hopefully we can source some more. No citrus greening in our nursery – including our big old Honey Bell. Last time the inspector was in he said the only one in the county that was clear.


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