Chewing sticks for dental care in Southern Africa

Chewing sticks, or toothbrush sticks, were widely used in former times from Ethiopia down to the southern tip of Africa. Nowadays, plastic toothbrushes are commonly used and only in very rural parts of this area, chewing sticks are still commonplace.

Generally, a good chewing stick has to be of fibrous texture and should be easy to chew initially. It also has to be of an agreeable taste. It should have antibacterial and antiplaque properties.

There are four types of shrubby trees, which fulfill these requirements. In Southern Africa, the most widely used are Bluebush sticks, followed by Mustard tree sticks, Magic Guarri- and Small Knobwood sticks.

Bluebush chewing sticks

Bluebush (Diospyrus lycioides) is a large shrub and easily discernable by its star-shaped leaves directly on top of the fruit. It looks very similar to tomatoes. The wood is yellowish due to its quinone content. It contains anti-bacterial binaphtalenone glycosides and naphtoquinones. Mainly roots are used as chewing sticks, but in Kaokoland/Namibia, they also use twigs for that purpose.

Mustard tree chewing sticks

Mustard Tree (Salvadora persica) twigs and roots are the best-known toothbrush sticks in Northeast Africa (Ethiopia), the Middle East up to Pakistan. In India, mainly Neem (Azadirachta indica) twigs are used as chewing sticks.

Salvadora persica is easy to identify and its ripe berries have a spicy, zesty taste. And its root extracts are even used in commercial toothpaste.

Guarri chewing sticks

Not only Magic Guarri (Euclea divinorum) but also Common-, Natal- and Blue Guarri species provide pleasantly tasting toothbrush sticks in Southern Africa. They are easy to prepare by chewing and do not leave fibers between the teeth. I favor them over all others. Additionally, there are often ripe fruits in the bushes to enjoy.

About the fourth wood species for chewing sticks, which is Small Knobwood (Zanthoxylum capense), I have not got any personal experience and therefore cannot comment on that.

Alternative toothpaste

As an alternative toothpaste, often ash from Leadwood trees is recommended. Leadwood can be easily recognized by its large size of the tree, silvery bark, and vertically oriented, rectangular bark squares.

Due to its high lime content, its ashes are ideal as an alternative toothpaste. See this link. These small calcium crystals act as abrasives and a watery solution of the ash will buffer the acid environment in the mouth. But leadwood is an endangered wood species and therefore protected by law. Its dead wood offers ideal conditions for a variety of ecosystems in the savanna biome.

Better would be to use any other hardwood ashes as toothpaste, as its chemical function is still the same as leadwood and the mechanical part of cleaning can be taken over by the chewing stick itself.

Lessons learned about chewing sticks and alternative toothpaste:

  • Bluebush is the most used wood for chewing sticks in Southern Africa
  • Mustard tree chewing sticks are mainly used in Arabian countries
  • My personal favorite are sticks made from Guarri species
  • Best alternative toothpaste originates from leadwood

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