Epazote (formerly Chenopodium ambrosoides, now renamed Dysphania ambrosioides) came to our area from Mayan lands. The name is the same in Nahuatl, Spanish, and English. Who says you are not multilingual?!
Epazote is a summer annual herb popular for culinary and medicinal uses. By the time of Contact, epazote had been cultivated for well over a thousand years in southern and southeast coastal Mexico. It was, and still is, a principle flavoring for a large number of Yucatan and Veracruz dishes, and is indispensable for cooking black beans.
Epazote, like the Old World herbs of cumin and ginger, has the unique ability to help break down hard-to-digest vegetable proteins. These difficult proteins are found most often in beans, peas, and members of the cabbage family. A few leaves of epazote cooked in the pot with the potential offender help break down these offending proteins while alo providing a delightfully piquant flavor to the dish.
This strongly scented herb is reported as a deer repellent. I can report that javalina, jackrabbits, cottontails and quail all avoid eating the plants. Medicinally, epazote has been used in an infusion as a vermifuge (against intestinal parasites), and in a decoction to help induce labor. These uses lead to one of it’s common names, wormseed.
Planting and Care. Plant epazote from seed in spring once night temperatures rise above the low 50’s. Seeds can take as long as four weeks to germinate. Plants will thrive through the warm season and freeze to the ground at 35 degrees, but often regrow from the roots.
Seed Sources. Check the Pima County Seed Library. No need to drive there, go online to check for seed availability then reserve some sent to your local branch. I have also found seed through Renee’s Garden Seed and Botanical Interests.
Soil. Epazote tolerates poor, even clay soil, but plants grow best in average, well-drained soil. Can be grown in containers that are at least eight inches deep.
Location. Full sun is ok in the Southwest, but afternoon shade is appreciated by this tropical herb.
Fertilize. Not necessary, but once a month with general purpose fertilizer will help make bushy plants. To really keep the plants bushy, you will need to pinch often. This is a technical term, really! (see “Care”).
Habit & Care. Epazote can reach 5 feet, but will be scraggly. Pinch or clip off the growing tips often to keep it around 2 to 3 feet tall, compact, leafy, and looking attractive in the garden. Usually a single plant provides enough for the household. Epazote reseeds readily, remove the flowering stalks, or be ready to weed excess plants next year. Seed heads turn an attractive bronze in autumn, and finches enjoy the seeds.
Harvest and Use. Epazote is used fresh for culinary purposes, and loses “digestive” properties when dried. Chop or mince leaves and add early to dishes that require long cooking, like beans, roasts, soups, or stews. Use one tablespoon minced leaves per cup of beans or to a two pound roast. Not used as a garnish, due to bitter taste. If you want to save epazote for winter use, chop up fresh leaves and freeze them.
Go Green. Use epazote to avoid using manufactured bean-digestive compounds. Having the plants in your yard saves packaging, shipping, and all the associated waste of resources inherent in manufactured goods. Even greener, epazote plants provide food for birds, a way to capture carbon, plus a lovely low green plant for your yard.
This article is exerpeted from my book “Father Kino’s Herbs: Growing and Using Them Today” (2011, Tierra del Sol Press, $15). I hope you will consider purchasing a copy locally at Antigone Books, Arizona Experience Store, Magic Garden, Mostly Books, or Rillito Nursery. You can visit my booth at the Arizona Feeds Country Store Spring Expo, Sat. May 3 (10-3), 4743 N. Highway Dr.