Chasing the Toothbrush Tree
In the 2003 Summer edition of Herbs, a reader asked about a tree used by the SAS during the Gulf War for cleaning their teeth. Deni Brown replied that it was probably the "Toothbrush Tree", Salvadora persica, which grew in Oman. This peeked my curiosity as I had just started chatting to someone on the internet who was working in Oman. I asked him if he could find out all he could about the tree and whether it would be possible to send me a sample back so that this could be lodged with The Herb Society for future reference.
This was his report. "My boss eventually arrived at work and summoned me (as always) I am 'his' Brit. No matter what I am doing part of the 'rules' are that he arrives and I must go take coffee with him. Much to his horror I drink Arabic coffee from large mugs. In their 'language', this is too heavy! I asked him about the toothbrush tree. Oh dear ! It is 'old', they are much more advanced now. I know that, but the mere suggestion that they still have recourse to 'primitive native things' is insulting. After much soothing of ruffled feathers and denigrating us Brits for having an interest in such archaic things, things calm down. Trying to explain aromatherapy and oils etc as 'hobbies' to an Arab is 'hard work'. However he eventually 'simmered down' and we spent the rest of my work day drinking coffe,e smoking and surfing Omannet on his computer for the appropriate tree.
It turns out that Dhofar (local county is the nearest equivalent) was the main place where it grew but when the agriculture was 'industrialised' for dates & bananas it virtually died out. My boss thinks it unlikely that I'd find one driving around the desert, plus of course there is the added danger that everything belongs to the King and taking without his express permission is theft with the dire consequences that entails (i.e. having one's hand chopped off!). However, he informed me with a happy smile that there is a conservation area, the Oryx Reserve, where they can be seen and I must accompany him and his family (well the male members & possibly small children) on a visit.
He was horrified at the idea I would approach my houseboy for twigs from the toothbrush tree and wonders how I would get it out unless I take it with me, (he would give me written permission !) . I really don't understand the rigmarole, as he says it is available in the local market. Also, I have to be careful expressing a desire too strongly as it makes it sort of obligatory that they should make a present of it to me. I almost ended up with set of 'worry beads' worth about £2000 because I said how nice they were!
When I went to Saudi I stopped off at DHL in the airport and asked about sending things to UK. Personal items (like your toothbrush plant). They laughed. You need approval from Interior ministry, Environment Office, Export Licence, a "No Objection Certificate", and permission to collect! There is also a problem with taking photographs of the plant since photographing anything or anyone without permission is illegal.
I did talk to my houseboy about using the toothbrush tree twigs for cleaning teeth. He said that it had a hot, peppery taste and it often gave people mouth ulcers when they first started using it."
So, after that "on-the-spot" research, I turned to the internet and did a websearch. The Oryx Reserve can be found on http://www.oryxoman.com/san_plants.html and a close up picture of the leaves & flowers can be found on http://uk.geocities.com/nabq2000/Sinai.html .
The toothbrush tree is also being grown in India and Africa, particularly the Nagarjunasagar Srisailam Sanctuary in Andhar Pradesh in India. I also discovered that the Ministry of Health in Abu Dhabi has been researching the antigastric ulcer effects of a combination of P oleracea (purslane) and Salvadora persica (Aarak/Toothbrush tree) and that roots of the toothbrush tree is currently used, efficaciously, by the Samburu tribesmen in the Masai for expelling the retained afterbirth of camels.
I find it fascinating that so much diverse information has been revealed by one simple question, "What is the toothbrush tree?"
S P Simpkin "Sumburu Camel Management Strategies" 1995
M. W. Islam, M. N. M. Zakaria, R. Radhakrishnan, X. M. Liu, H. B. Chen, K. Chan and A. Al-Attas (Ministry of Health, Abu Dhabi) Research into gastric disorders
More pictures and drawings of the toothbrush tree can be found on http://www.eingedi.dead-sea.k12.il/EinGedi/solution3.htm
Sarah Head - email email@example.com
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