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Szechuan Pepper
Status

Edible Plant
Medicinal Plant

Scientific Name

Zanthoxylum americanum

Alternative Common Names

American Prickly Ash, Northern Prickly Ash, Prickly Ash Berry, Toothache Tree, Sansho, Chinese Pepper, Japanese Pepper, Aniseed Pepper, Sprice Pepper, Fagara, Nepal pepper, Indonesian Lemon Pepper, Tickle Tongue Tree, Angelica Tree

Group

Rutaceae, the rue or citrus family

Plant Type

Shrub
Tree

All Seasons This Plant is Edible

Mid-spring
Late spring
Early fall
Mid-fall
Late fall

Primary Seasons This Plant is Edible

Mid-spring
Late spring
Early fall
Mid-fall
Late fall

Food Uses

Salad
Potherb
Seasonin
The young leaves are in season in the spring, the berries in the fall.

Parts to Use

Leaf
Pod

Habitats

In sun or shade, on fertile, well-drained soil, in woodlands, and along riverbanks

Primary Habitats

Near rivers, lakes, and streams, and in wetlands

Range

North Central States, plus parts of NY, PA, and extreme southern Quebec

Prevalence

Neither common nor rare

Place of Origin

Native

How to Spot

Look for a shrub or small tree with gray to brown, smooth bark punctuated with mounds usually armed with paired spines, often forming thickets. The red-brown to gray branches are usually armed with opposite thorns and alternate, feather-compound, lemon-scented leaves consist of five to 11 small, elliptic, ovate to oblong, nearly stalkless, wavy edged or toothless leaflets. Loose clusters of small, inconspicuous, long-stalked, five-petaled, green flowers growing from the leaf axils, to be replaced by lemon-scented, spherical to ellipsoid, bumpy, long-stalked, red fruit capsules containing shiny, hard, aromatic black seeds.

General Information

The gray to brown, smooth bark of this shrub or small tree, which grows from nine to 18 feet tall, is covered with mounds usually armed with paired spines 0.2 to 0.6 inch long, as are the red-brown to gray branches. It sometimes forms impenetrable thickets.

The alternate, feather-compound, lemon-scented leaves grow up to one foot long, with five to 11 elliptic, ovate, or oblong, nearly stalkless, wavy edged or toothless leaflets 0.8 to three inches long and 0.4 to 1.5 inches wide. With an asymmetrical base, each leaflet is dull green above, paler beneath. They turn yellow in autumn. The side leaflets are stalkless. The terminal leaflet has a short leafstalk, and the older leaflets are peppered with resin dots.

A loose cluster of small, inconspicuous, five-petaled, long-stalked green flowers grows from the leaf axils in the spring. Highly aromatic, spherical to ellipsoid, bumpy, long-stalked fruit capsules 0.25 inch form from summer to fall. Green ripening to red, each fruit capsule contains one or two small, shiny, hard, black seeds.

Positive ID Check

•Shrub or small tree nine to 18 feet tall often forming thickets

•Gray to brown, smooth bark usually punctuated with mounds usually armed with paired spines

•Red-brown to gray branches usually armed with paired spines

•Alternate, feather-compound, lemon-scented leaves

•Five to 11 small, elliptic, ovate, or oblong, nearly stalkless, wavy edged or toothless leaflets

•Loose clusters of small, inconspicuous, long-stalked, five-petaled, green flowers, growing from the leaf axils, in the spring

•Highly aromatic, spherical to ellipsoid, long-stalked, bumpy fruit capsules 0.25 inch, first green, then red

•One or two small, shiny, hard, black seeds inside fruit

Harvesting

Strip off the young leaflets, or pick the ripe fruits with your fingers.

Food Preparation

A signature herb of Szechuan cuisine, the toasted ground fruit capsules (without the gritty seeds) create a tingly, numbing sensation on the tip of the tongue, along with an overtone of citrus. They're best pan-roasted, ground, and added to soups, stews, tofu dishes, or mock fish dishes, at the end of cooking. Traditional companion seasonings include ginger, anise seed, chili peppers, black pepper, and garlic.

This spice is also big in Japan, where its called sansho. The Japanese also use the young leaves as a garnish, and sell a mixture of roasted, ground fruit capsules mixed with ground black pepper.

Nutrition

No information is available.

Medicinal Uses

A safe and important Eastern and Western medicinal plant that's been used for centuries, Szechuan pepper, going by the name prickly ash in Western herbal medicine, is considered an alterative herb that gradually alters the course of a condition in a favorable direction. It contains the alkaloids chelerythrine, fagarine, magnoflorine, laurifoline, and nitidine; the courarins xanthyletin, zanthoxyletin, and alloxanthyletin; as well as the lignan asarinin, plus herclavin, tannins, resins, and a volatile oil. It has a stimulating effect upon the entire body, especially the lymphatic system and mucous membranes.

Natives Americans treated toothache with this shrub by chewing its cambium or pasting it on their gums. The burning sensation it creates blocks out the pain for a while. They applied a cambium poultice mixed with bear grease externally as a pain-killer, and used a cambium or fruit and seed decoction for gonorrhea. Chelerythrine, one of the compounds the shrub contains, shows anti-microbial and anti-fungal properties in the test tube, so this herb deserves to be tested on people.

The Indians also used this herb to treat sore throats, arthritis, and stiff joints and muscles, for which it seems helpful. An infusion or tincture of the cambium or fruit and seeds is still included in herbal treatments for arthritis and joint pains today, and a poultice is applied topically for wounds, pelvic disorders, rheumatism, and back pain.

As a vasodilator, it opens blood vessels and increases circulation, so herbalists use these preparations for intermittent claudication (cramps caused by poor peripheral blood circulation), Raynaud’s disease (numbness, again also caused by poor blood circulation), cold hands or feet, chilblains (wet frostbite), and varicose veins or varicose ulcers. Increasing the flow of saliva, it improves dry mouth, and it's been used for toxic shock syndrome—an often fatal form of circulatory failure that requires prompt medical intervention. It's also used for candida infections, diarrhea, flatulence, excessive belching, fatigue, fever, lumbago, paralysis, rheumatism, typhus, asthma, and sickle-cell anemia, although experimental verification is lacking.

An official treatment for chronic rheumatism, flatulence and diarrhea in the US Pharmacopeia from 1820 to 1926, 19th and early 20th century doctors extracted a resin they called fluidextractum xanthoyli from the cambium and used it to bring on delayed menstruation, and for digestive disorders such as indigestion, dyspepsia and colic; to reinforce the nervous system, and to treat cholera and typhus (potentially deadly infections requiring immediate medical treatment).

In traditional Chinese medicine, the decoction is used for the same disorders, as well as for killing pinworms and other parasites, so lawyers and politicians should avoid using this herb!

Poisonous Lookalikes

Cautions

This herb is contraindicated for anyone with ulcerative colitis, peptic ulcers, ulcers of the digestive tract, and gastro-esophageal reflux. Since it's used to bring on menstruation, pregnant women should avoid it, even in Chinese restaurants. And don't touch your eyes after handling the shrub—it can be quite painful if you don't wash your hands beforehand.

Similar Plants and Confusing Factors

This species certainly confused me—I knew it as a medicinal shrub called prickly ash for decades, and it too 28 years of foraging tours before someone finally revealed that it was identical to Szechuan pepper!

The shrub is not related to black pepper or hot peppers. The related toothache tree (Z. clava-herculis), also sometimes called prickly ash, has larger leaves and similar medicinal uses to Szechuan pepper.

Devil's walkingstick (Aralia spinosa) is a small, spiny tree with feather-compound leaves and edible shoots, but the leaves are much larger, and the flowers and fruits are completely different.

If you eat in a Szechuan Chinese restaurant or purchase prickly ash in an herb store or online, you'll probably get the Chinese species (Z. bungeanum), but these two related shrubs have the same culinary and medicinal uses.

Szechuan Salad Dressing

This tangy dressing will zap your tongue with every bite of salad you eat!

2/3 cup olive oil
1/3 cup red wine vinegar
2 tbs. lecithin granules
2 tbs. mellow miso
1 clove of garlic
1 tsp. Szechuan pepper, ground, or to taste
1/2 tsp. marjoram, ground
1/2 tsp. rosemary, ground
1/2 tsp. tarragon, ground

Purée all ingredients in a blender.

Makes 1/2 cup

Preparation time: 5 minutes

Plant Images
Szechuan Pepper Leaves

Prickly Ash Leaves

This shrub's smooth, gray bark, covered with pointed mounds ending in paired prickles, and the alternate, feather-compound leaves consisting of five to 11 elliptic, ovate, or oblong, nearly stalkless, wavy edged or toothless leaflets, make prickly ash distinct, even without the small, long-stalked, spherical fruits.

Szechuan Pepper Trunk

Szechuan Pepper Trunk

Szechuan pepper's gray trunk is punctuated with mounds tipped with paired spines, making this shrub or small tree unlike any other species. It makes me think of the hide of a stegosaurus!

Szechuan Pepper Unripe and Ripe Fruit

Prickly Ash Fruits and Thorn

These long-stalked, spherical, bumpy fruits—green at first, then red—grow in small, loose clusters. It's the ripe, red fruits you use as a spice, something the ant with a taste for Szechuan food clearly knows!

Szechuan Pepper in Fruit

Szechuan Pepper in Fruit

This prickly, many-branched, funnel-shaped, gray shrub, with feather compound leaves, provides small clusters of small, red, spicy fruits in autumn.

Szechuan Pepper Seeds

Szechuan Pepper Seeds

These shiny, hard, black seeds are gritty, even when ground. It's the fruit capsule you use for food.