Epazote is a piece of living history. Native to Central and South America, this herb was prized by the Aztec culture for culinary and medicinal uses. Today epazote has naturalized in the United States along roadsides (frequently called a weed) and is known to grow in New York’s Central Park. Some call epazote a weed, while others enjoy it as a culinary companion to cooked beans. If you’re the latter, try growing epazote plants in your garden.
Epazote adds a distinct flavor to Mexican dishes and is a staple ingredient in bean dishes, both for its taste and its anti-flatulent properties. Like cilantro, epazote has a fragrance and flavor that folks either love or hate. Leaves have an aroma that seems to smell differently to different people. It’s been described as having tones of lemon, petroleum, savory, gasoline, mint, turpentine, and even putty. Despite the sometimes odd fragrance, the unique flavor makes epazote an ingredient that can’t be duplicated or replaced in recipes.
Pregnant or nursing women should not consume epazote in any form. No one should ingest the seeds or oil, which are poisonous. It’s also wise to avoid consuming the flowering tips of stems.
Note: While we do not currently carry this variety, we offer this information for gardeners who wish to grow it.
Extract originally published on bonnieplants.com. Please click the link for more specific information about soil, planting, care and harvesting.
In the Garden and Kitchen
An annual in Zones 2-7 and a hardy perennial in Zones 8-9, epazote is native to tropical and subtropical regions. In full sun and average, well-drained soil, the herb grows to a height of 2 to 4 feet. The toothed, oval leaves are ready to harvest in 45 to 65 days. Insignificant greenish flowers appear in late summer and fall. Pinch back the plants to encourage bushiness and reduce self-seeding. Or allow the plants to flower and self-seed if you want new plants to grow the following spring. You may want to take steps to avoid having too much epazote in your garden. Since epazote is hardy and self-seeding, tame it with barriers or containers. You can sink large containers in the ground, or grow epazote in a large container on a sunny deck or patio. If you choose the patio route, it will also be easy to access for culinary pursuits.
Unlike its grain cousin, quinoa (C. quinoa), epazote’s flavor is best described as uniquely pungent. Many say it is an acquired taste, but you simply must try it for yourself to really know the flavor of epazote. Start by adding just a small sprig to a recipe, such as chili. Once you’ve tried it and liked it, add just one more sprig to experience its full potential. You can add epazote to soups and stews, bean and squash dishes, corn, pork and fish. Try sautéing a sprig with mushrooms or onions. Its flavor also complements cilantro and chiles.
Although epazote leaves are commonly used in Mexican cooking, the seeds and oil should never be ingested . As one of its common names—wormseed—implies, native Central and South Americans traditionally used this herb to eradicate intestinal worms. In the early 1900s in the United States, the oil commonly was used for controlling internal parasites in humans, cats, dogs, horses and pigs, but by the 1940s, this remedy was replaced with less-toxic treatments as it has caused dizziness, convulsions and even death in doses as little as 10 mL (or less in children) when taken internally. There is no known cure for overdose.
Medicinal Uses For Epazote
Epazote (epazo¯tl is the Nahuatl word for the plant) gets its alternate name American wormseed from its long-standing and widespread use as a remedy for intestinal parasites. The practice apparently arose in Mexico and South America and was then passed northward, first to Native Americans and from them to white settlers. Its effectiveness (it paralyzes the parasites and then a strong laxative is taken to expel them) was recognized by its inclusion in the U.S. Pharmacopoeia from 1820 to 1947. Large plantings in Maryland in the nineteenth century supplied the essential oil (then known in commerce as Baltimore oil) to the pharmaceutical industry.
Besides using it as a vermifuge, the Aztecs also mixed epazote leaves with food to treat respiratory disorders. (Breathing difficulties can be caused by roundworms that have migrated to the lungs; getting rid of the worms could have alleviated symptoms.) In eighteenth-century Mexico, a decoction of the dried leaves was taken to relieve rheumatism, fainting, burns, and typhus. Epazote’s uses in the New World led to its importation into Spain in the eighteenth century, where it is known as Mexican tea.
Various native peoples in the American and Mexican West today drink epazote tea or eat the plant to facilitate childbirth and ease painful menstruation as well as to expel worms and relieve gastrointestinal disorders (some of which might be brought on by the worms). Epazote leaves also have been poulticed on arthritic joints, athlete’s foot, and insect bites.
Other Uses For Epazote
Epazote’s other main use is culinary: a few leaves added to bean dishes contribute an unusual flavor and are believed to prevent flatulence. It also appears in Mexican and Guatemalan recipes for mushrooms, corn, fish, and shellfish. Try two or three sprigs in a pot of black beans serving six to eight, adding them during the last fifteen minutes of cooking. Or chop a few leaves to toss into a corn relish to stuff into bell peppers or tomatoes. You may want to use just one sprig until you get used to the flavor, which some say is an acquired taste. Pregnant women should forgo this bit of authenticity altogether.
The green branches have been used to make wreath bases, but beware: handling the resinous leaves can cause dermatitis or an allergic reaction such as dizziness. Some people use the dried branches as a room freshener. Epazote also has been used to repel mosquitoes and added to fertilizer to inhibit insect larvae. In their book Southern Herb Growing (Shearer, 1987), Madalene Hill and Gwen Barclay note, “In the old days, farmers put epazote branches in the peas to keep the weevils out.”
Buy some seeds. In early summer, plant a few in well-drained soil in full sun. Give the rest of the seeds away. Thin seedlings to a single plant. Don’t let it go to seed unless you want a forest of epazote next year. If you just want a few leaves for your beans, epazote could be growing in your local park or nearby vacant lot. Look for plants growing away from well-traveled roads.
• Horizon Herbs, PO Box 69, Williams, OR 97544-0069. (541) 846-6704; e-mail email@example.com. Catalog $1.
• Richters, Goodwood, ON, Canada L0C 1A0. (905) 640-6677; e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. Catalog free.
• The Thyme Garden, 20546 Alsea Hwy., Alsea, OR 97324. Phone or fax (541) 487-8671; e-mail email@example.com. Catalog $2.