Toothache Grass – The Ctenium Tingle

17 Oct

Ctenium aromaticum

Toothache Grass


Last Friday I served as local helper for visiting researchers at the American Bamboo Society’s Annual Meeting.   Although not a Bamboo, the topic of Toothache Grass came up with interest, and lodged in my thoughts this week.   Ctenium aromaticum is one twisted species that shows how so much ties together oddly in the world of nature.


Don’t say I suggested this, but if you bite Toothache Grass, it numbs the mouth dramatically.  Effects like that do not go unnoticed, and the responsible chemistry is interesting.  The grass contains at least three poor man’s anesthetics: pellitorine, dodecadienamide, and isoaffinin.  (Not need to pronounce them, which would be impossible after biting the Ctenium.)  A term for these odd substances is “tingle molecules,” which are of interest in the flavoring and toiletry industries.  Want an underarm deodorant or scalp shampoo that feels zippy like it really works?  Put in a tingle molecule!


Pellitorine has long served in traditional medicine, but not in today’s grass, which actually has no proven dental history, but rather Mt. Atlas Daisy (Anacyclus pyrethrum), a pretty Composite distributed around the Mediterranean cradle of civilization.  In addition to uses against toothache (really), that ancient medicine plant is reputed to cure low T (in mice), enhance male performance (in people), counter bacteria, bug bugs, and more.  Different plants, different continents, same drug, same presumed use—dental analgesic.

Dodecadienamide and isoaffinin have a more local toothache connection, in species of Zanthoxylum, often called “toothache trees.”   We’ve numbed our brain with these in this blog previously:  CLICK

This stuff gets serious.  My son Martin is a Chemical Engineer and U.S. Patent Examiner.  With his inspiration I occasionally take  an interest in industrial plant-chemistry patents.  A 2013 patent involves processes for manufacturing commercial tingle molecules “to impart flavor and/or a tingling and/or warming sensations in the oral cavity and on skin when used in foodstuffs, chewing gum, oral care products, hair care products, colognes, topical cosmetic products or medicinal products.”  The patent application mentions and illustrates isoaffinin in their preliminary discussion of the relevant chemistry.

Worldwide there are almost 20 species of Ctenium, in Africa as well as in the New World.  Some of the African species are beautiful with long feathery inflorescences, and serve for thatching and making beehives.  Maybe if the dog bites or the bee stings, a little dab of Ctenium and then it won’t feel so bad.  Also in Africa the livestock do not enjoy tingling tonsils, so an abundance of Ctenium indicates overgrazed pasture in addition to thatching time.

Plaiting with Ctenium in the Sahal (from Fakara Plants).

Plaiting with Ctenium in the Sahel (from Fakara Plants).


Posted by on October 17, 2013 in Toothache Grass


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4 responses to “Toothache Grass – The Ctenium Tingle

  1. Keith Rossin

    February 13, 2014 at 11:34 am

    Toothache grass, wow can you say an amazing plant that has clearly not been researched enough, I cant believe the benefits from just nibbling on a piece of grass,its plants like this that get me feeling a little numb about how can we destroy native habitat.

  2. George Rogers

    February 13, 2014 at 11:54 am

    When we go soon to the Sweetbay natural area we may have to nibble one, just a little.

    • Keith Rossin

      February 27, 2014 at 11:28 am

      That sounds like a plan, I have to try this traditional medicine.

  3. George Rogers

    February 27, 2014 at 11:31 am

    It’s pretty strong! On March 13 the fieldtrip is to Sweetbay Natural Area—lots of Ctenium there.


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