The long serrated leaves of the Mexican epazote (Dysphania ambrosioides or Chenopodium ambrosioides) herb have an unpleasant smell similar to bleach, kerosene or gasoline, although it is sometimes described as minty or citrusy. They lose most of their aroma during cooking, however. The leaves are torn up or chopped similar to cilantro and are used to flavor many dishes, including beans, soups, and salads. Their flavor is bitter and pungent and will tend to drown out other flavors, so they are often used alone.
Also called skunkweed, pig weed, and wormseed, and Mexican tea, epazote is a member of the goosefoot (Amaranthaceae) family and is related to spinach, beets, and quinoa.
The plant originated in Central America and central and southern Mexico. Although it was once thought that the occurrence of the plant in the Southwestern United States occurred through introduction, it is now thought that this was the northern range of the plants indigenous territory. Epazote, however, has been naturalized as far north as Canada, and also in tropical and warm temperate regions throughout the world.
The name epazote came from the Nahuatl words epatl, meaning skunk, and tzotl, meaning sweat. As is obvious, it was a reference to the smell of the plant, suggesting the English name sweaty skunk plant. There are also some other Mexican plants that have epazote in their name, but are unrelated to D. ambrosioides, which is itself a very recent designation. Most information on the plant uses the name C. ambrosiodes.
The word “ambroisiodes” suggests ambrosia. Indeed, it is Latin for “ambrosia-like.” You may wonder how such a smelly plant could be associated with the Thanksgiving dessert, but it is actually a reference to a strong odor. Ambrosia was Greek for “not mortal” and it was known in Greek mythology as a food reserved exclusively for the Gods. The newer name dysphania is based on the Greek word dyspanis, referring to something being difficult to see. It is a reference to the tiny flowers of the plant.
Epazote was used by the Aztecs for medicine, such as to treat hookworm. They are thought to help reduce the flatulent effects of beans, and are added for this purpose. The same chemical in the leaves which is toxic to intestinal worms, a terpine called ascaridole, is also poisonous to humans in large amounts, but the leaves are fine when used in moderation.
Since the flavor is so strong and can be unpleasant, moderation is really just a few sprigs, and it would be very difficult to eat enough to poison yourself. Other bitter leaves like arugula or escarole can be used as a substitute.
Besides in bean dishes, epazote is also used in meat dishes, stews, and in quesadillas. It is used in the Yucatán to make a famous and classic Maya dish, Papadzules. For papadzules, a broth of epazote is mixed with pumpkin-seed paste to make a sauce that tortillas are dipped in before being rolled around hard-boiled eggs and served with a tomato sauce.
Fresh epazote is not available in most parts of the United States, but it can be purchased in dried form in Latin markets or online]. When purchasing dried epazote, expect to find some woody stems mixed in with the leaves.
Other Names for Epazote
Besides the names already mentioned above, epazote has many other designations. However, some of these names may also be used for other plants. It has been called Jesuit’s tea, Spanish tea, American goosefoot, American wormseed, Baltimore wormseed, bitter weed, demi-god’s food, herb sancti Mariae, Indian wormweed, wormbush, worm grass, wormseed oil plant, and others. It is sometimes called hedge mustard and stinkweed, but both of these names are well-established for other unrelated plants.
The curious name Baltimore Wormseed stems from the fact that Baltimore, Maryland was the center of production for wormseed oil in North America for over 100 years. Wormseed oil was sold in the early 1900’s as an anthelmintic, which is a mideince used to control parasites. It was used to treat roundworm and hook worms in not only humans, but in cats, dogs, horses, and pigs. Wormseed oil made from epazote was replaced with less toxic alternatives in the 1940’s.