15 July 2008

Green toothpaste anyone?

I have had a number of conversations with people regarding problems with teeth and dental hygiene in general in Mexico. Many people here have very bad teeth and it is not the fault of Mexican dentists who as a group, are in my opinion, excellent. I have had dental care done here with very satisfactory results and at a very reasonable cost. Personally, I think the main problems with teeth are related to poverty, diet, and education. However, there was one particular item that piqued my interest during conversations with several different people. Older folks who come from small villages or "ranchos" as they are known around here talk of a plant that their mothers taught them to identify and chew to help them clean their teeth. It was supposed that the chlorophyll in the plant would aid in preventing tooth decay. They call the plant "Siempreviva" which means "always lives" in Spanish. I checked it out and found that it is a common succulent plant indigenous to Mexico and in English it is called "Green Cockscomb" or "Greater Mexican Stonecrop". Its Latin name is Sedum Praealtum. It has no real medicinal value except that of a mild soothing agent for inflamed areas similar to other succulent plants such as "Aloe Vera". Perhaps it would help sooth a toothache but I have found nothing to indicate that it will prevent tooth decay.

I then wondered about the name "Siempreviva" and where it came from. It turns out that there is another plant whose Latin name is Sempervivum. The Latin word "Sempervivum" means the same as the Spanish word "Siempreviva" (always lives). It is indigenous to Southern Europe and the Middle East, especially Iran. There are various forms of Sempervivum and one variety even grows in the Swiss Alps. Sempervivum Tectorum is a plant that is well known in both Europe and the United States. It's English name is "Common Houseleek" but most people know it by its nickname "Hen and Chicks". The suffix "Tectorum" is taken from the Latin "tectum", meaning roof. Some say that The Romans planted them on their roofs to guard against lightning. Others say that say that The Romans planted them on their roofs to plug leaks. Maybe that is where the name "Houseleek" came from but don't quote me on that. It is just wild speculation on my part. Both Siempreviva (Sedum Praealtum) and Sempervivum (Sempervivum Tectorum) can often be found in the same nursery or even the same back yard as they have both become popular ornamental plants. They also both belong to the same family, Crassulaceae. They both have an astringent quality and contain the same mild healing agent except that Sempervivum contains about twice as much as Siempreviva. They don't look exactly alike but they do have many similar qualities. Apparently, somewhere down the line Siempreviva adopted the Spanish version of the name of its cousin Sempervivum.

Well, you might ask, why do the people chew Siempreviva if it doesn't actually prevent tooth decay? I imagine that the perception of the effectiveness of chewing the plant to prevent cavities was stronger than the reality. However, the people that I talked to told me that the poor country people always seemed to have better teeth than their wealthier city cousins and why would this be if it wasn't because they chewed Siempreviva? Well, I don't know for sure but I have a hunch that it was because of their diet. The poorer country people didn't have things like sugar, carbonated beverages, or white bread in their diet. This could have a lot to do with preventing tooth decay. When I first heard about this "miracle" plant I thought, "Wow! I could gather up this plant and turn it into green toothpaste and sell it over the Internet and make a fortune". I guess now that idea is out the window. Oh, well, back to the drawing board. By the way…don't forget to brush your teeth.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...


by chance I came across your blog. I myself am a Sempervivum collector. I have more than 1.700 diffreent plants of which you can read on my blog and forum.

There's something that I would like to comment - not only one Sempervivum is growing in Swiss Alps...

Check my blog
or forum

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About Me

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I was born and raised in Chicago, Illinois, U.S.A. I have been living in Mexico since January 6th, 1999. I am continually studying to improve my knowledge of the Spanish language and Mexican history and culture. I am also a student of Mandarin Chinese.