Native Plant Road Trip – February, 2008

Hercules Club, Prickly Ash, Tickle Tongue, and Toothache Tree.
Photo by the author.

Toothache Tree

Found myself once again meandering through a meadow just outside of Fayetteville, Texas, listening to the doves coo and the wind make that strange scratching sound as it blows through the pines. In places, the grass is chest high and I’m doing this funny high-step in an attempt to leave only minor evidence of my adventure. (I know, I know, it’s like a hippo walking on tip-toe.) Amazing how 500 deer can cross a meadow without leaving a trace, but one human….

As I make my way down to the fence line that separates the hayfield from the natural meadow, I come across some small trees strung right in line of the barbed wire … testament to the effectiveness of birds in planting trees. I love stuff like this … delightful little insightful tidbits that nature throws your way every day, and most of it goes unnoticed by us all-too-busy people. Among the cedar elm, Eastern red cedar, and yaupon holly, I notice an old friend, Zanthoxylum.

You may know this wonderful native tree by any of its four common names: Hercules Club, Prickly Ash, Tickle Tongue, and Toothache Tree. This small tree is native from East Texas to West Texas, and also a member of Rutaceae (the citrus family), two things you just can’t say about a whole lot of plants. It is commonly found along fence lines and the edges of forested areas. The most obvious distinction is the thorns, which are small and sharp on small twigs and gradually get larger and duller as the branches get bigger.  Thorns on the trunk itself often form into jam-packed, platy little pyramids that look like they’re made out of cork. This explains the first two common names … but what about the other two?

The bark and leaves of Toothache Tree do indeed contain chemicals that deaden toothache pain. How would I know? Because I’m the guy who tastes, feels, touches, smells, and experiences everything for myself, instead of relying upon superfluous resources like authoritative opinions and controlled scientific experimentations. (I prefer the term “experiential learner.” Others have used different words – like “knuckle head” and “stubborn mule.”) All of which takes me back, once again, to the Heard Natural Science Museum in McKinney.

I first met the Toothache Tree when I worked at the Heard, as it was (and still is) one of the feature plants in the native plant garden. The garden was fresh and new and exciting (still is), and I was fresh out of grad school, new to many native plants, and excited about learning everything I could. So Harold Laughlin (major league native plantsman) tells “Eager-Beaver Stevie” about this Toothache Tree … and though I thought I detected a mischievous little grin on his face as he turned away to “get back to work,” I just let it go.

Of course, I’m out there in three minutes flat with a wad of tree leaves in my mouth, noticing the flavor isn’t truly terrible, but resembles some old, off-brand kind of minty chewing gum you’d likely find in the bottom drawer of my writing desk. About the time I’m getting all scientific, I notice one section of the tree is just covered with bird poop. So, as every scientist does, I go to inspect it … and IT MOVES!! Double take … it moves AGAIN.

Next thing I know I’m clawing this wad of leaves out of my mouth because my tongue has passed out, and I’m a little mad at Harold for not telling me this plant is hallucinogenic … when I notice that nothing else is moving. I try to think rationally about all this for a moment (fully aware that I’m drooling all over myself because I can’t feel my lips anymore), and notice that I can still stand up okay. I do a quick field sobriety test on myself right there in the garden (close eyes and touch nose; stand on one foot, etc.), and find that all seems to be in order, so I calm down a little and look back at the bird poop. Still moving. So I do what every true scientist would do … I touch it. I notice it really doesn’t like being touched, which was interesting, since one would think bird poop doesn’t give a bird poop about anything. Turns out all of that bird poop was actually a hatch of swallowtail butterflies! Yep, this particular species of swallowtail has caterpillars that mimic bird poop … which, when you think about it, is about as brilliant as a disguise gets. (Sorry, thrill-seekers, Toothache Tree is not hallucinogenic.)

I blink and find myself back in Fayetteville, laughing out loud from reliving this dusty memory that, like a diamond, still shines when you take it out into the light. And I wonder if Harold ever thinks of that day … the day he and the gift shop ladies laughed themselves silly watching me “discover the Toothache Tree” through the windows of that little museum in McKinney.

Chamblee Meadow update: Just walked out there this morning and saw green tinge to the burned section … kinda reminded me of a five o’clock shadow on the Jolly Green Giant. Closer inspection reveals both grasses and forbs coming back; most are still too small (1/16-inch or so) for me to tell what they are, but I could recognize some poppy seedlings. I’ll let you know more next month.

About the author: Steven Chamblee is the chief horticulturist for Chandor Gardens in Weatherford and a regular contributor to Neil Sperry’s GARDENS Magazine and e-gardens newsletter. Steven extends an invitation to Chandor Gardens:

Plan your springtime trip to Chandor Gardens! We officially open the first weekend in April (April 5 – 6). This year we bring you a little blast from the past with a special $1 admission (just like Ina used to charge in 1978), live music, a special exhibition of five antique cars, and special Shakespeare vignettes to be performed in various places in the garden. The brand new gift shop (not even named yet!) will be open, featuring treasures from Parker County and around the globe. Refreshments will be available. Come on out and see us!

Hours are 9 a.m. – 3 p.m. Saturday; 1 p.m. – 5 p.m. Sunday. For more information, call 817-613-1700 or visit

Posted by Neil Sperry
Back To Top