Common name: Prickly ash
Other names: Northern prickly ash, toothache tree
Latin name: Zanthoxylum americanum
Affinities: Musculoskeletal system, nervous system, circulatory system, digestive system
Actions: Circulatory stimulant, digestive stimulant, carminative, diaphoretic, analgesic, antirheumatic, nervine, alterative
Specific indications: Sharp shooting pains, cold extremities, poor circulation, joint pain, weak digestion, nervous debility
Diseases: Arthritis(3), neuralgia(3), sciatica(3), Raynaud’s disease(3)
Parts used: Bark, berries
Energetics: Warming, drying
Characteristics: Prickly ash is a small tree native to Northern America and grows from Quebec in Canada, south to Georgia, and west to Oklahoma (Ju et al., 2001).
History: Prickly ash has a long history of medicinal use and shares the name, ‘toothache tree’ with a southern growing prickly ash called, Zanthoxylum clavaherculis (Ju et al., 2001; Bafi-Yeboa et al., 2005). Both types were used to treat toothache, however northern prickly ash is used as a remedy for many different medicinal problems, so this discussion is limited to northern prickly ash. Prickly ash was used extensively by the Native Americans for medicinal purposes (Goodchild, 1999). For example, the Algonquin used a decoction of the roots for relief from rheumatic complaints, while the Alabama used a decoction of the inner bark for various skin problems. Bark from prickly ash was chewed by the Native Americans to alleviate toothaches.
The Eclectic physicians in the 19th century used prickly ash as a digestive aid, to strengthen the nervous system, and for cholera (Covey, 2008). The Eclectic physician Finley Ellingwood in his text, ‘The American Materia Medica, Therapeutics and Pharmacognosy’, wrote, ‘This agent is a stimulant to the nerve centers, and through these centers it increases the tonicity and functional activity of the different organs. It is diffusible, producing a warm glow throughout the system and nervous tingling, as if a mild current of electricity was being administered.’ (Ellingwood, 1919).
Current uses: Matthew Wood recommends pricky ash bark tincture for cases of nerve pain in his book, The Practice of Traditional Western Herbalism, mentioning that prickly ash is an excellent remedy for nerve damage resulting in numbness, tingling, and pain (Wood, 2004). He recommends it is applied in small doses a few drops, several times a day. It may be combined with St. John’s wort made from fresh material in equal parts for this purpose.
The late Dr. Christopher wrote of pricky ash in The School Of Natural Healing remarks that the action of this general stimulant is slower than cayenne, but its effects are more permanent, and it will remove obstructions in every part of the body (Christopher, 1976). Prickly ash is a warming circulatory stimulant and is indicated for peripheral neuropathies, Raynaud’s disease, arthritis, and cold extremities. Prickly ash is one of a small number of stimulant herbs and is thought to increase the activity of the formula by assisting in assimilation and distribution.
Science: Some studies in the 1970s on extracts from the bark and berries identified the coumarins and alkaloids (Ju et al., 2001). Coumarins are a major class of O-heterocyclic compounds with a broad pharmacological profile and have anti-tumour and anti-viral properties. A study found that prickly ash extract displayed anti-fungal properties (Bafi-Yeboa et al., 2005). There have not been any scientific studies of prickly ash on humans to date.
Safety: Prickly Ash is generally regarded as very safe to use, but avoid use when pregnant. I have found it is very drying, and this can be seen on the skin even at low doses.
Dosage: Dose of tincture is 5-60 drops 2-3 times daily. It will cause headaches when too much is taken.
Bafi-Yeboa, N. F. A., et al. “Antifungal constituents of Northern prickly ash, Zanthoxylum americanum Mill.” Phytomedicine 12.5 (2005): 370-377.
Christopher, John R. School of Natural Healing. Christopher Publications, 1976.
Covey, Herbert C. African American slave medicine: Herbal and non-herbal treatments. Lexington Books, 2008.
Finley Ellingwood, The American Materia Medica, Therapeutics and Pharmacognosy, 1919.
Goodchild, Peter. Survival Skills of the North American Indians. Chicago review press, 1999.
Ju, Yong, et al. “Cytotoxic coumarins and lignans from extracts of the northern prickly ash (Zanthoxylum americanum).” Phytotherapy Research 15.5 (2001): 441-443.
Wood, Matthew. The earthwise herbal: a complete guide to old world medicinal plants. North Atlantic Books, 2011.
Wood, Matthew. The Practice of Traditional Western Herbalism: Basic Doctrine, Energetics, and Classification. North Atlantic Books, 2004.