Epazote (dysphania ambrosiodes) is also known as Mexican tea or wormseed. It’s a member of the goosefoot family and has been used in Mexican recipes for centuries.
According to Gene Matlock, the founder of The Institute of Herbal Philosophy, which focuses upon Mexican herbalism, “Epazote is one of the greatest antiflatulents. A small sprig of this plant can turn beans into a gourmet delight with only minimal ‘wind breakage’ afterward. Use it sparingly, however, because large quantities will impart a bitter taste to beans.”
Probably the most distinctive aspect of epazote is its unique aroma. Many times, someone smelling epazote for the first time suggests that it smells like turpentine. Others find it reminiscent of cilantro. A blind man should be able to identify it. When seen for the first time, it might appear as a somewhat ragged and darker green lamb’s quarter, to which it’s related.
Epazote has a branched stem, which can reach up to about 3 feet. The shiny-green leaves are elliptical, 2 to 5 inches long, and sometimes reddish tinged or blotched. The leaves are arranged alternately. The undulating leaf margin is slightly or entirely toothed. The leaf surface is hairless, although it may be slightly tomentose when very young.
According to Altadena resident, Professor Miguel Gutierrez, “Epazote is a prevalent plant in Mexican culture and cooking. I grow it in my garden here in Altadena, where it grows very easily.
“In fact, it’s a prolific seeder, so once it grows in your garden and it goes to seed, it’s pretty safe to say you’ll have it around for many years to come. It’s not uncommon to find it here in Southern California where it has become naturalized in some areas. My family lives in Nebraska where the epazote seeds survive the harsh winters and come back each year to repopulate the garden.”
Where it’s found
Epazote is abundant along inland stream beds in sandy soil and common in seaside salt marshes. The plant, which is sometimes cultivated, generally prefers waste locales and areas with somewhat poor, sandy soil. It seems to prefer the semi-shade along the bank of a sandy river or stream but will do well in rich garden soil when cultivated. Believed to have originated from central Mexico, it is now well naturalized throughout parts of the United States.
Gutierrez reports that once while fishing in Pyramid Lake, “I ran into a thicket of wild epazote right at the edge of the water.”
According to herbalist Michael Moore, author of “Medicinal Plants,” “The leaves and seeds of epazote are a classic Mexican bean spice. It is called for in many traditional recipes, both to reduce the flatus levels, and to jazz up the taste.”
Epazote has long been popular in Central and South American and Mexican cookery as a culinary spice, especially in bean dishes because it prevents gas.
According to Dr. James Adams, author of “Healing with Medicinal Plants of the West,” “Two of the treasures from Mexico are the prickly pear cactus and the epazote herb. I always add fresh epazote on top of my black bean dishes.”
Though fresh leaves can be added to dishes, the plant is usually dried first, which somewhat mellows the fragrance. The dried leaves are then crumbled into the pot of beans, or stew, shortly before being served.
According to Gutierrez, “Epazote is frequently used as a flavoring agent for beans, but by far, my favorite use of epazote is to make quesadillas. There’s a particular style of quesadillas that’s very popular in Mexico, which includes flor de calabaza (squash/zucchini flowers), epazote, sautéed onions and fresh serrano chiles. It has a very strong scent and potent flavor which I really like. When you first bite into the raw leaf you get a rush of ‘minty’ freshness through your mouth. It has a bit of ‘bite’ in it and can have a slightly bitter aftertaste. This very strong flavor is what gives these quesadillas their signature taste. The potent flavors of epazote and chiles are tempered by the more subtle flavor of the flor de calabaza.
“In the early summer, when my kids find a small epazote plant hiding behind the tomato plants, they get excited and ask me to make them quesadillas with flor de calabaza. There must be something in the flavor that is agreeable to children because my kids and younger siblings loved to rip off a few leaves and chew on them for a bit.”
Advice for growing
Epazote can be successfully grown from cuttings that have been rooted in good soil or vermiculite, however, most gardeners start them from seed. Soak the seeds for a few hours in water before planting, and then plant them in a flat, or directly into the garden. The seeds seem to take longer than other seeds to sprout, and gardeners often forget they even planted the seeds. So, make sure to label your plantings.
When to harvest/availability
In colder climates, epazote will live as an annual. In the south and warmer environments, it will act more as a perennial, and will come up for a few seasons.
Harvesting the mid-sized epazote plants is easy. Just pinch off the top new growth. Pinch off just what you need at the time or pinch back a lot if you plan to dry some of the herb for storage.
The leaves are best harvested young, and dried. I prefer only the leaves in my cooking. However, you will observe that in Mexico, the entire above-ground plant — including the stem — is harvested, dried and ground up for use in cooking.
Besides preventing or stopping excessive gas, herbalist Gene Matlock explained, “Epazote is also excellent for expelling worms from the body. The tea is also an excellent cure of the nerves and digestive organs. Epazote has become one of the most highly valued herbs in the Chinese materia medica.
“The Chinese use it as a diaphoretic, to strengthen the eyes and the circulation, to cure coughing up blood, and for dysentery.”
Matlock advises that one take this either in powder form or infused into a tea.
Pure oil of Chenopodium is toxic, so you sometimes see epazote listed in books of poisonous plants. However, epazote leaf contains only 1% of this oil, and such small amounts are ideal as a vermifuge or anti-flatulent. A teaspoon or so of the seeds added to dog and cat food works wonders as a de-wormer and does not pose a threat to the animal’s health in such low dosage. Eating moderate amounts of the cooked greens poses no health hazard whatsoever. However, due to the strong aroma of epazote, it is rarely cooked alone. Generally, epazote greens are mixed with other greens before cooking.
Where to obtain
You can find sources of the seed and leaf online.
Julie Balaa is an urban farmer who sells plants at the Highland Park farmers market every Tuesday, and she sells the seeds, dried herbs and the living plants when she has them available.
Another source for epazote is Survival Seeds, P.O. Box 41-834, Los Angeles, CA 90041, for $4 per seed packet (price includes postage).
Christopher Nyerges has been teaching ethnobotany since 1974. He is the author of “Guide to Wild Foods and Useful Plants,” “Foraging Wild Edible Plants of North America,” and other books on the uses of wild plants. He can be reached at schoolofself-reliance.com.
Cooking with epazote is easy. Add approximately 1 tablespoon of the herb — both the chopped stems and the leaves — to a pot of beans. You can use it fresh or dried. The epazote herb can also be added to soups, stews, and made into tea. The powdered leaves can be added to salads, such as potato and bean salads.
Here are some simple recipes I’ve developed for using epazote.
Maya Black Bean Soup
1 cup black beans
2 teaspoons epazote
3 small potatoes
salt and pepper, to taste
Cook the beans first for about an hour until tender. Then add the onions and potatoes and cook until tender. Add the seasonings. Let simmer on low temperature for 15 minutes before serving.
1 cup lentils
1 bay leaf
5-6 cups water
2 teaspoons dried epazote
1 diced red onion
3 cloves of garlic
2 diced carrots
Wash the lentils, and then simmer for an hour and a half. Add the other ingredients when the beans are nearly soft. Simmer until the vegetables are soft. (Add salt or kelp to taste, if desired.)