COMMON NAME - The toothbrush tree, O'remiti (Kimaasai)
LATIN NAME - Salvadora persica
One day when I was out walking with my Maasai interpreter in Monduli District, Tanzania, he gave me a twig and he told me I could chew it to clean my teeth! This seemed odd to me; I usually brush for two minutes, twice a day, and I wasn't convinced that chewing a twig with no toothpaste was going to give me clean teeth or fresh breath. It turns out I should be more open-minded about my dental cleansing practices, for Salvadora persica, the toothbrush tree or O'remiti in Kimaasai, has a number of active compounds that have been shown to promote oral hygiene!
The toothbrush tree is in the Salvadoraceae family and can be found across Africa and parts of Asia. It grows in grassland and thorny scrub like the acacia-dominated plains of Monduli where I work in Tanzania. The small stems and roots can be chewed, and they have been found to contain active compounds which reduce decay, plaque, and gum disease. It tastes quite good too! Furthermore the fruits are edible and can also be used to produce oil. In my own research I have learnt from Maasai people that it can be used as a medicine for livestock, and other research has found local medicinal uses for humans too, including as an anti-malarial. It has even been called one of the "Maasai wonder plants".
Actually, you need to cut and chew it in a special way to get the best effect. Pictured above is a Maasai friend of mine cleaning his teeth while we hunted for other medicinal plants near to his remote village.
Kiringe, J. W. (2006). A survey of traditional health remedies used by the Maasai of southern Kaijiado district, Kenya.
Minja, M. M. J. (1999, March). The Maasai wonder plants. In People and Plants’ Training Workshop held at the Tropical Pesticides Research Institute-Arusha Tanzania 15th–18th March.
JENNIE HARVEY MSC
Jennie has an academic background in Biology and Ethnobotany and is currently studying for a PhD in Geography. She has interests in ethnobiology, biocultural conservation, traditional knowledge, and smallholder agriculture.