Herb to Know: Epazote

1 / 3
2 / 3
Keep epazote from spreading by growing it in a large container on a sunny patio.
3 / 3
Do not ingest epazote seeds or oil; pregnant women should not eat the leaves.

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.

Caution:Women who are pregnant or nursing should avoid using even the leaves of this herb.

Sources: Look for dried epazote leaves at specialty spice shops (www.penzeys.com is one supplier); Mexican groceries sometimes carry the fresh leaves. Seeds for growing epazote are widely available from many reputable mail-order sources. 

Dawna Edwards, a former Herb Companion editor, is a freelance writer and gardener from Colorado.

Mother Earth Living
Mother Earth Living
The ultimate guide to living the good life!