• Chenopodium ambrosioides
• (Kee-nuh-PO-dee-um am-bro-zee-OY-deez)
• Family Chenopodiaceae
• Annual or short-lived perennial
Epazote, once cultivated on a large scale as a medicinal herb, is now grown in few herb gardens. A roadside weed in much of North America and central and southern Europe, its herbal uses are barely recognized today outside its native Mexico and South America.
The genus Chenopodium comprises some 150 species of herbs or subshrubs found throughout the world. They include Good-King-Henry (C. bonus-henricus), grown for its spinachlike greens; quinoa (C. quinoa), whose nutty seeds, available in upscale grocery stores, are cooked like rice; and lamb’s-quarters (C. album), which is either esteemed as a potherb or reviled as a weed, sometimes both. Spinach and beets are close relatives.
The name Chenopodium means “goose foot”, an allusion to the shape of the leaves of some species, but not to those of epazote (C. ambrosioides), which are rather long and skinny with wavy teeth. (The species name ambrosioides means “ambrosialike”, a reference to its resemblance to Ambrosia, the genus of ragweeds, rather than to the food of the gods.) The coarse, robust plant may grow as tall as 5 feet with a much branched, downy stem that is woody at the base. Minute greenish flowers in dense spikes in the leaf axils bloom in late summer and fall. The entire plant has a pungent odor, which has been likened to that of eucalyptus, pine, turpentine, or camphor.
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.
The major constituent of epazote’s essential oil is ascaridole (named for a genus of intestinal worms). The oil may be distilled from the herb but is most concentrated in the seeds. The variety C. ambrosioides var. anthelminticum (“parasitic worm destroying”) is richer in ascaridole than the species.
Unfortunately, the amount of epazote needed to cure a person of intestinal parasites is close to the toxic level. Fatalities have occurred from misjudging the dosage or the strength of a given batch of medicine. Today, synthetic drugs are a safer alternative, but even they are risky to use during pregnancy.
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.
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