Nature – The Hercules’ Club Tree

The Hercules’ Club tree (Zanthoxylum clava-herculis), also known as toothache tree, tickle-tongue, pepperwood, and Southern prickly ash, is a spiny tree or shrub in the citrus family, native to the southeastern United States. Rarely reaching over 30 feet in height, the tree gets its name from the odd spiny, warty projections on the bark of older trees, which is said to resemble the spiny club of Hercules. The leaves are pinnately compound with a citrus scent, and the spring blooming flowers are greenish yellow and produced in clusters located on the tips of the branches. The tree has a preference to grow on well-drained, light, sandy soil and is often found growing on river bluffs, woodland edges, and fencerows.

It is best known for the numbness it produces when the leaves or bark are chewed, similar to the effects of novocaine. Indians and early settlers both used it for toothaches, hence its other name, toothache tree, as well as for other medicinal uses such as sore throats, itches, ulcers, chest ailments, and venereal disease. More modern medicinal uses for the tree include poor circulation, varicose veins, chronic rheumatism, typhoid, blood impurities, skin diseases, and resistant staphylococcus. It also stimulates the lymphatic system and mucous membranes.

The tree is very valuable to wildlife. The blossoms are very attractive to bees and other pollinators, which in turn attract insect eating birds. The leaves are browsed by deer and used by a number of insect species including as a host for the larvae of the giant swallowtail butterfly. The fruits are eaten by a multitude of birds that help to disperse the seeds, which are also scarified by the birds as they pass through their digestive tract, which in turn helps them to germinate.

Just as the Hercules’ Club causes the mouth to go numb when partaken of, so our senses have been numbed by partaking of worldly amusements and sin: “A terrible picture of the condition of the world has been presented before me. Immorality abounds everywhere. Licentiousness is the special sin of this age. Never did vice lift its deformed head with such boldness as now. The people seem to be benumbed, and the lovers of virtue and true goodness are nearly discouraged by its boldness, strength, and prevalence. The iniquity which abounds is not merely confined to the unbeliever and the scoffer. Would that this were the case, but it is not. Many men and women who profess the religion of Christ are guilty. Even some who profess to be looking for His appearing are no more prepared for that event than Satan himself. They are not cleansing themselves from all pollution. They have so long served their lust that it is natural for their thoughts to be impure and their imaginations corrupt. It is as impossible to cause their minds to dwell upon pure and holy things as it would be to turn the course of Niagara and send its waters pouring up the falls. … Every Christian will have to learn to restrain his passions and be controlled by principle. Unless he does this, he is unworthy of the Christian name.” The Adventist Home, 328. “I tell you the truth. We are far behind our holy religion in our conception of duty. Oh, if those who have been blessed with such grand and solemn truth would arise and shake off the spell that has benumbed their senses and caused them to withhold from God their true service, what would not their well-organized efforts accomplish for the salvation of souls!” Testimonies to Ministers and Gospel Workers, 395.

David Arbour writes from his home in De Queen, Arkansas. He may be contacted by e-mail at: