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Herb to Know: Epazote

| August/September 1998

• 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.

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.

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