Treating toothache by picking at the decayed tooth with a sharp twig of WILLOW, until it bled was recorded in Wales. After that the twig had to be thrown into a running stream. Simply chewing some willow bark would have been useful, for it contains salicin, from which salycilic acid was obtained. Later, this was compounded into acetyl-salicylic acid — aspirin, in a word.
Applying a hot FIG (to the tooth or the cheek?) used to be a Cumbrian remedy for toothache, but the strangest remedy must be the use of pine cones. The scales were the part needed, because (and this is pure doctrine of signatures) they resemble the front teeth! A transference charm for the toothache involved BIRCH. It was recorded in Suffolk, and the sufferer was instructed to clasp the tree in his arms, and then cut a slit in it. A piece of his hair had to be cut from behind the ear, with the left hand, and this had to be buried in the slit. When the hair had disappeared, so would the toothache. ELDER was used in various charms for the condition.
One from Denmark and Germany involved putting an elder stick in the ground (or a twig held in the mouth) while saying something like “Depart, evil spirit”. In Ireland, clay from under an elder tree is applied to an aching tooth, and toothpicks were made in Warwickshire from elder wood, to ensure protection from toothache. A peeled POTATO, if carried in the pocket on the same side as an aching tooth, will cure it as soon as the potato itself is reduced to crumbs.
In County Clare, people used to pick and chew the bark of an ancient HAWTHORN at a holy well as a cure for toothache (Westropp), a practice that could be classed in the same category as the WILLOW bark as a primitive aspirin, or else simply as a charm, because of the connection with a holy well. HOLLY leaves were once used, the cure involving getting rid of worms that were believed to be responsible some hundreds of years ago. “For toothwark, if a worm eat the tooth, take an old holly leaf… boil two doles [i.e., two of worts to one of water] in water, pour into a bowl and yawn over it, then the worms shall fall into the bowl”. Again, “if a worm eat the teeth, take holly rind over a year old and root of CARLINE THISTLE, boil in water, hold in the mouth as hot as thou hottest may”. SEA HOLLY seeds, we are told, could be used to treat toothache. A remedy from the Physicians of Myddfai enjoins the sufferer to “take a candle of mutton-fat, mingled with the seed of sea-holly; burn this candle as close as possible to the tooth, holding a basin of cold water beneath it. The worms… will fall into the water to escape the heat of the candle”! WALNUT leaves, strongly astringent, used to be bound on to the cheek for toothache (a practice that could certainly harm one’s face.
The Physicians of Myddfai record the use of HONEYSUCKLE leaves for the complaint: “Take the inner bark of the IVY and the leaves of honeysuckle, bruising them well together in a mortar, expressing them through a linen cloth into both nostrils, the patient lying on his back, and it will relieve him”. Turner actually recommended chewing MARSH MARIGOLD leaves to relieve toothache. It sounds extremely hazardous, as does the use of the very acrid roots of SPURGE LAUREL. CAJUPUT oil can be used as a counter-irritant by just rubbing it on the gums. BURNET SAXIFRAGE root, too, was chewed to relieve the pain of toothache, or the roots of GREATER CELANDINE, as Gerard advised. HORSERADISH leaves, bound on, will relieve the condition. That was in Essex, but in Norfolk the cure was to grate the root and put it on the opposite wrist for twenty minutes. A hot CABBAGE leaf, sprinkled with pepper, put to the cheek was another recommendation from Essex. Early prescriptions include the use of BUCK’S HORN PLANTAIN for toothache (“Shave hartshorn and seethe it well in water, and with the water wash the teeth, and hold it hot in thy mouth a good while. And thou shalt never have the toothache again”). Another charm making the same claim, from France, was to make a necklace of MARSH MALLOW (roots?) for children to wear. Native Americans would put a piece of the root of VIRGINIAN SNAKEROOT into their hollow teeth to try and stop the toothache (Coffey), while the California Indians used the root of CALIFORNIAN BUCKTHORN (Rhamnus purshiana), heated as hot as could be borne, to put in the mouth against the aching tooth, and gripping it tightly between the teeth (Powers). Holding a piece of TARRAGON root between the teeth will cure toothache, too, while chewing MUSTARD seeds used to be a common way of relieving the condition, or, in Norway, WATER PEPPER could be chewed Gerard recommended SCARLET PIMPERNEL for toothache, “being snift up into the nosthrils”. An oil distilled from BOXWOOD was once recommended for toothache, as well as for ailments as diverse as epilepsy and piles. Earlier herbalists seem to be agreed that CINQUEFOIL offers a cure for toothache. Albertus Magnus says so, among sundry other doubtful receipts. Gerard also recommended it, and before his time, there was a 15th century leechdom “for aching of the teeth. Take the root of cinquefoil and seethe it well in vinegar or in wine, and hold it as hot as he may suffer it a good while, in his mouth. And it shall take away the ache”.
“Most men say that the leaves (of YARROW) chewed, and especially greene, are a remedy for the Toothache”, something that was well known in Saxon times, for Cockayne has, from Apuleius Herbarium, “for toothache, take a root, give to eat, fasting”. An old Irish remedy advised the patient to chew the leaves. The Salish Indians of Vancouver Island agreed. They just hold a leaf in the mouth to stop the pain, and in southern Malawi, the roots and leaves of CHINESE LANTERN (Dichrostachys glomerata) are used as a toothache cure. Yarrow’s close relative, SNEEZEWORT, was also used, as a native substitute for Pellitory-of-Spain, just chewing a leaf and holding it in the mouth, or by mixing the juice with vinegar and holding that in the mouth, who also suggested a mouthwash made from the decoction of BEE BALM. Putting TOBACCO on the tooth was quite a common remedy, just as putting it in the ear would stop earache, while an Irish remedy is to put a piece of CAMOMILE root on the aching tooth. FIGWORT has some anodyne value. It will ease pain wherever it is applied, and that includes toothache and babies’ teething.
By the principle of the counter-irritant, BUTTERCUPS were used at one time. Gerard, in a burst of humour, wrote that “Many do use to tie a little of the herbe stamped with salt unto any of the fingers, against the pain in the teeth; which medicine seldome faileth; for it causeth greater paine in the finger than was in the tooth…”. PELLITORY-OF-SPAIN was a favourite for the relief of toothache at one time, and a number of prescriptions from the 15th century onwards are recorded. Lupton, for example, advised the sufferer that “the root of pellitory of Spain, chewed between the teeth a good while, will purge the head and gums very well, and fasten the teeth; it helps the head-ach and tooth-ach, if it be used four or five times a day, two or three days together”. There are records of the use of this plant from a collection in a 15th century leechbook, some reasonably straightforward, but what are we to make of this one?: “for aching of the hollow teeth. Take raven’s dung and put it into the hollow teeth and colour it with the juice of pellitory of Spain that the sick recognise it not nor know not what it be; and then put it into the tooth and it shall break the tooth and take away the aching, and some men say, it will make the tooth fall out”. In some parts of Scotland, the island of Mull being one, the root of YELLOW IRIS was chopped up and used for the relief of toothache. A 14th century recipe prescribed the leaves, stamped with honey, and applied to the cheek. Wesley, too: “to cure the Tooth-ach … chew the root of the yellow Flower-de-Luce”. In one case, the instruction was to put the juice in the ear on the same side.
There was a belief in Germany that if a tooth was extracted, the patient must eat three DAISIES to be free from toothache in the future. There was, too, a practice in Cumbria of eating two daisies to cure toothache, possibly an example of Gerard’s dictum that “the daisies do mitigate all kinde of paines”. Gypsies would cure toothache by dropping the juice of PEPPERMINT on to the aching tooth to relieve the pain, and apparently slaves in Jamaica used the GUINEA-HEN WEED (Petiveria alliacea).