For the past year and a half I’ve worked at a large greenhouse in Phoenix. Our one commercial tenant grows microgreens destined for farmer’s markets and restaurants. The two charismatic young men who run this company attract many fans to the greenhouse, from pretty women who shop at farmer’s markets to visionary chefs seeking the latest in flavors to spice up their creations.
The other day Joseph came up to me cradling a small yellow blossom in his palm. “Want to try something wild?” he asked. Microgreens are grown from many flavorful greens including basil, radish and mustard, so I’m used to such requests. But I hadn’t seen the yellow flowers before.
“Sure. What is it?” I asked the question at the same time I popped the whole bud in my mouth. From the first bite the sensation was intense, and I watched a grin spread across Joseph’s face while mine twisted in surprise.
“It’s called a buzz button,” he said. “Or a Szechuan button.”
The Latin name is Spilanthes acmella and the plant is a member of the sunflower family. An intense uproar was going on in my mouth. The feeling on my gums was progressing from fizzing to electrifying, and my tongue was going numb. I swallowed the bud and felt a cool menthol rush in my throat.
Joseph told me that a couple of chefs requested the buzz buttons. Ever in search of something new, innovative chefs use just a few petals of the tiny flowers in sauces and soups to create layers of flavor and sensation. The petals are also used in syrups, cocktails and desserts.
The plant has long been used for its medicinal qualities in South America, North Africa and Asia where it is prescribed for stomach distress, toothaches, stammering, and to ward off parasites. The alkaloid Spilanthol gives the plant its electrifying effect.
I imagine Szechuan buttons create quite a buzz when offered as samples at the microgreens table at the farmer’s market.