Hercules's Club, Pollinator Magnet, Host Plant, Culinary Delight

"People who have tasted the bark call it pepperwood, rabbit gum, sting tongue, tongue-bush, and toothache [tree]". (Austin, 2004)

'Toothache tree' is how I was first introduced to Zanthoxylum clava-herculis about a decade ago. My partner made the introductions and told me the leaves would numb my mouth, so I popped one in to check it out. It was August and the leaves quite mature (in other words, potent!) and yes, it numbed my mouth. Completely.

Over the years I've watched and admired as what started as a scraggly, knee high cluster of prickly twigs in our backyard stretch out and up into a majestic specimen nearly two stories tall. The pollinators go crazy over the hundreds of tiny flowers that appear briefly every spring and occasionally we are lucky enough to find giant swallowtail larvae nibbling away at the pungent leaves.

It wasn't until this year that I considered trying the leaves again, this time in early spring, just as they are starting to unfurl and far less potent.

Around the first of March, I pluck a tiny leaflet and pop it into my mouth expecting a milder version of the numbing sensation from our initial introduction. I chew. There is sensation, but it's not numbing. It's slightly citrusy, ever so slightly resinous. It's pungent and weird, but in a really good way. If 'bright' and 'tingly' were flavors, this might be them. I pluck and eat another one just for fun. And then I put teeny, tiny bright and tingly leaflets in everything over the next couple of days. Strawberry Hercules's club soda (see what I did there?). Mayport shrimp pickled with lemon, onion, thistle and prickly ash (another common name). Prickly ash garlic salt. Deviled eggs adorned with a caper and olive medley and… you guessed it, Hercules's club.

If you're fortunate enough to have a female tree, the fruit can also be used. The flavor is similar to Sichuan pepper.

Prickly Ash Pickled Shrimp

1 lb shrimp, boiled and peeled
1 lemon, thinly sliced
1 small onion, thinly sliced
1 thistle (Cirsium horridulum) stalk, thinly sliced*
1/2 cup rice wine vinegar
2 Tbsp neutral oil (I used EVOO)
2 Tbsp capers
2 Tbsp garlic cloves, minced
1-2 Tbsp fresh prickly ash/hercules's club/toothache tree leaflets

Mix everything together in a bowl and refrigerate overnight.

*can substitute celery if fresh out of thistle stalks


Strawberry Hercules's Club Soda

(this is a fermented beverage recipe, the alcohol content produced is typically negligible, but results can vary based on environmental factors)

1 dozen fresh strawberries, sliced
3 Tbsp honey
1 - 2 Tbsp Hercules's Club leaflets
2 inch piece of vanilla bean, sliced in half lengthwise
4 cups hot water
32 oz glass jar (plastic and/or metal are not recommended) w/ lid

Mix the strawberries, honey, Hercules's Club leaflets and the sliced vanilla bean in a clean 32 oz glass jar. Fill the remaining space with the hot water leaving enough room topside to stir the contents without spilling. Stir to dissolve the honey and loosely apply the lid. Stir the contents every 4 - 8 hours for the next 2-3 days (the warmer the environment, the faster it will ferment). The soda is ready for drinking or bottling when the mixture gently starts to produce bubbles. It can be strained and consumed immediately or placed into a swingtop for 48 more hours for further carbonation. If carbonating in swingtop bottle, refrigerate before opening (or risk a champagne like explosion from pressure build up).

Betsy Harris is a surfer and a member of the Ixia Chapter.


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