A few weeks ago I was in Florida and was fortunate enough to find a good-sized stand of Prickly Ash trees (Zanthoxylum clava-herculis), a plant that I’d been hoping to find during my trip. There was enough of it that I felt comfortable harvesting a few branches to bring back and make into tincture. As I was researching the herb to refresh my memory of its more obscure uses, I thought it would be a great to share with you. Both because it is an amazing and under-used herb but also it gives me a chance to talk about heating remedies and what they do.
It really is an unparalleled native herbal remedy with a long history of use, most often as part of a larger formula. In the citrus family (Rutaceae) and not related to the true Ash trees, Prickly Ash has some of that aromatic bitterness of the citrus but also a circulatory stimulating, or “Heating” property that is more stimulating than Ginger but not so hot and dispersing as Cayenne. To put that in perspective, Ginger warms up internally and is great for being out in the cold too long while Cayenne is so dispersing that it ends up cooling us off by stimulating the body to dilate the blood vessels near the surface and “sweat off” the extra heat. It’s circulatory stimulant properties make it useful for those with cold hands and feet, including conditions like Raynaud’s Disease. It also has been used for Intermittent Claudication, muscle pain and cramping from low blood flow after exercise.
Arthritis and joint pain are traditionally treated using both blood movers (“circulatory stimulants”) and blood cleansers (“alternatives”). Blood tends to slow as it moves through the joint capsule because it’s harder to run in curves than in straight lines, and as it slows it can deposit toxins, just like in places where a river slows down debris can pile up. An example of this would be how uric acid builds up in a specific joint in gout.
Many herbal traditions add a warming herb to a formula to help potentiate the formula (ie – drive it deeper into the body, make it more effective). In Chinese medicine Ginger is often used, in Ayurveda Black Pepper and Long Pepper (Pippali) are commonly used, and in some American traditions, Cayenne serves this purpose. But Prickly Ash can be used in the same way, to open up the circulation so that the herb “takes” more easily and deeply.
It stimulates not just blood circulation but also lymph circulation, so it is used in formulas for both acute conditions like colds to chronic conditions – even used as part of a formula for things like cancer, Lyme’s disease, or STIs when combined with other herbs. This would never be the main herb in the formula, but something added to the formula to increase its efficacy.
Prickly Ash is also a good pain remedy, especially for neuralgic pain like sciatica, or shooting pain. One of its common names is Toothache Tree, and the bark can be chewed or the tincture diluted and used as a mouth rinse to help with tooth pain while at the same time stimulating circulation in the gums.
If you do chew it, you might find that it strongly stimulates salivation, which is technically called a “sialogogue” but Prickly Ash is more of a “drool-agogue” by my standards. This ability to stimulate secretions can make it a great ally for people with dry mouth and insufficient digestive secretions, either chronically or because of drugs like beta-blockers or chemo. Really anyone with slow digestion and low secretions could benefit from this herb and it could help flatulent dyspepsia. Just don’t use it if there’s already a lot of stomach irritation or inflammation (“Heat”) because then you would need something more calming and soothing, not stimulating.
Prickly Ash is a great herb to have in your apothecary or around the house, and a great example of a Heating herb that doesn’t overdo it. As I learn more about this plant, I’m going to post more here.