Herb to Know: Epazote

| June/July 2010

  • ©2010 Steven Foster
  • Keep epazote from spreading by growing it in a large container on a sunny patio.
    ©2010 Steven Foster
  • Do not ingest epazote seeds or oil; pregnant women should not eat the leaves.
    Photo by David Cavagnaro

Chenopodium ambrosioides
• Also known as Mexican tea and wormseed
• Hardy to Zone 8-9

You won’t find epazote in the standard American spice rack, but in regions of Mexico, epazote (Chenopodium ambrosioides) is a favorite recipe ingredient. You’ve undoubtedly tasted its distinctive flavor in the dishes served at your local Mexican restaurant. It’s especially common in bean dishes, to ward off gas. Its carminative compounds are believed to reduce flatulence.

Also called Mexican tea and wormseed, epazote belongs to the Chenopodiaceae, or goosefoot, family. Many members of this family are native to North America, but C. ambrosioides originated in Central America. Believed to have been used by the Aztecs, epazote made its way to Europe in the 17th century. Now abundant throughout most of the United States and eastern Canada, this herb is sometimes considered a weed due to its self-seeding and easy germination. But with a contained location and some monitoring, epazote is worth growing in the kitchen garden.

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.

Traditional Uses

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.

2/3/2013 11:58:24 PM

I have been giggling as I read your article about apazote. In my country Puerto Rico is called Pazote but in other countries I know it's called apazote. Now I was laughing because this plant in my land is used as a vermifuge. it's used on children that have round worms to purge them out. The smell and taste of this plant makes people gag. Even though my siblings and I never had the worms, once a month my mother prepared this pazote tea and forced us to drink it as a prevention. When I moved to the states and moved to a house as and adult, the smell of pazote reached me in the yard one day and and I found an area where is was growing wild. I hated the smell so much I tried to kill it but every year it came back. To think that people use it in recipes made me laugh.

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