Electric Daisy – Comfortably Numb Tongue
This strange flower will leave you speechless – because you’ve got no feeling in your tongue.
The electric daisy is a funny one – it pretends to be a daisy, but it barely has any petals. It pretends to be edible, but if you eat one it gives you a little surprise. Originating somewhere in the mysterious depths of South America, presumably in a jungle where everything is either electric or poisonous, the electric daisy is actually edible from the ground up. The leaves can be added to salads or cooked dishes (a key part of a dish called jambu in Brazil) and have a nice subtle flavour. The flowers, though, are the showstopper.
The flowers look like they came out of a packet of Liquorice Allsorts – they’re yellow and cone-shaped, with no petals to speak of. Their insignificant appearance belies their impact though – pop one of the little buttons into your mouth and you’re rewarded by a mild citrus flavour, but that soon turns to a pleasantly surprising tingle, which in turns gets more intense until you’re torn between wanting to spit it out and wondering where this is headed. After a while the tingle disappears, as does everything else because your tongue and wherever the daisy’s active ingredient (spilanthol) has affected turns numb.
This has given the plant the alternate names of toothache plant as well as buzz buttons or electric buttons. The oral electrocution is accompanied by a decidedly ungraceful quantity of saliva, which sometimes escapes your mouth because you can’t quite tell if your mouth is closed… This entertaining (for people watching you) experience lasts for a quarter of an hour or so.
Because it comes from the tropics, the electric daisy can’t handle frost, but in warmer areas it is a perennial. It has an erect growth habit despite being quite small, and it grows to its mature size quite quickly, culminating in the yellow ‘flowers’ (actually hundreds of small flowers making up a composite flower) that sometimes have a red tip to the cone. It does best in rich soil that drains well, and can be sown in situ if started once the cold weather has passed. It does need direct sunlight to grow, and the seeds need sunlight to germinate, so don’t cover them when planting.
Seeds are available locally from heirloom seed suppliers. While the electric daisy is frequently grown as a quirky ornamental, it actually has a variety of medicinal uses. As you have no doubt already picked up, it is used as a local anaesthetic to treat the symptoms of toothache, but it also has strong anti-inflammatory properties and is used culturally as a treatment for diarrhoea and coughs. It has also been the subject of many modern scientific studies, revealing analgesic and diuretic properties, amongst others. Then it can be eaten, as we’ve said, and also used in cocktail drinks or sorbets, to add a little buzz. But our favourite use for it is, obviously, to prank visitors to our garden…