Dysphania ambrosioides or Chenopodium ambrosioides
Epazote is an herb that is native to South and Central America. It has traditionally been used as an herbal remedy since the time of the Aztecs, and it is also an important herb in Mexican cooking. The flavor and scent of epazote are acquired tastes, however, and can be off-putting to people who are not used to them.
In the US, epazote is sometimes called skunk weed because the odor is considered to be repellent, but in Latin America, many people enjoy both the scent and the taste of this plant. The current scientific name for epazote is Dysphania ambrosioides, but it used to be classified as Chenopodium ambrosioides. It is also known as Mexican tea, wormseed, paico, Jesuit’s tea and Herba Sancti Mariae.
Epazote is an annual plant that is often found growing on waste ground, in flowerbeds and in dry lakes and rivers. It is native to the South and Central Americas, but is also found as an invasive species in the temperate and tropical regions of the world, in Europe and the southern US.
Characteristics & Texture
Epazote has long, toothed aromatic leaves that can be up to about three inches in length, with the leaves becoming smaller the higher up the stem they are growing.
The plant can reach heights of several feet under optimum growing conditions. Adult plants produce a number of irregular branches that are held vertically, or near vertically.
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The plants have small, green flowers that appear as loose, branching spikes or panicles, which grow out from the reddish colored stem. Epazote usually flowers between July and September, after which it will produce small, round green fruits, each containing a tiny black seed.
The scent of an epazote plant is unique and very strong. It is often the easiest way of identifying or locating the plant. In the US, epazote is sometimes referred to as skunk weed because the odor is often considered very objectionable, but in other times and places the scent has been thought of as very attractive.
Some indigenous people wore pieces of epazote for its scent. The odor of the plant bears some similarities to the scents of citrus, camphor, mint, savory and petroleum. Epazote is one of the strongest smelling herbs. The scent of epazote is matched with an equally strong flavor, which is employed in many dishes from Latin America.
The leaves of the plant are commonly used as flavoring or are eaten as a vegetable, but an oil may also be derived from epazote and used for medicinal purposes. This oil can be produced from the whole plant, or just from the leaves, the seeds or the fruit alone. Epazote tea is also produced from the leaves. Many traditional herbal remedies require the preparation of a decoction of the leaves of the epazote plant. The leaves are mashed and then boiled in water in order to extract the useful oils.
The name Epazote is derived from the word epazotl, which comes from the Nahuatl language. This is an Aztecan language that is found in Central Mexico. The Aztecs used epazote as a natural remedy and as an herb for flavoring food. Many other indigenous American peoples have also used this plant.
Epazote used to be scientifically classified within the genus Chenopodium, along with approximately 150 other species that are commonly known as goosefoots. Epazote has since been reclassified in the closely related genus Dysphania, but there are still many similarities between the plants in these two groups. Members are often used as leaf vegetables or are grown in order to extract oils from them.
Quinoa oil, for example, comes from a plant within the Chenopodium genus. The oil that is derived from epazote or D. ambrosioides is often called oil of chenopodium. This name comes from the old classification of the plant, and is still used today although the plant is technically no longer in the Chenopodium genus.
The goosefoots have been used for food since at least 4000 BC, when different species of this plant were being grown by the ancient peoples of Europe and North America. Epazote also has a long history of use as both a food and a medicine.
Epazote has traditionally been used as a cure for intestinal parasites. This is reflected in some of the names that have been given to the plant, such as wormseed.
Eating the leaves can eliminate worms in the digestive system. It has also been used as an herbal remedy to treat spasms of the muscles, and in order to induce abortion, among other things. Epazote is widespread as a native plant across both South and Central America, and it has been exploited by many different groups of people living in different parts of this region.
Many groups of indigenous people in the Americas have used epazote as an herbal remedy, particularly as a cure for intestinal worms. In the Yucatan, epazote has been traditionally used to get rid of worms, and to treat chorea, asthma and excessive mucus production.
In the Amazon, the Tikuna Indians have used epazote to treat worms and for its laxative properties. In South America, the Kofan and Siona Indians have used epazote to kill parasitic worms, by dosing patients with a cup of epazote leaf decoction taken every morning for three days, and the Kofan Indians have worn bracelets made from the plant in order to provide a perfume. The Creoles have used epazote to treat worms in children and to cure colds in adults.
The Wayapi have used a decoction of epazote leaves as a treatment for stomach upsets and internal bleeding caused by falls. In Piura, Peru, people have used an epazote leaf decoction to treat intestinal gas, worms and parasites, gout, cramps, hemorrhoids, and nervous disorders, as well as using it as a laxative and an insecticide. Some tribes treat fevers by bathing in epazote decoction and burn fresh epazote plants to repel insects, including mosquitoes.
Latin America Influence
Many of the traditional uses of epazote remain current in modern Latin America. Epazote is particularly common as an herbal remedy for the treatment of intestinal worms and other parasites of the digestive system, such as amebas. Both the leaves and the seeds are used to treat worms. In Brazil, epazote is also used as a cure for coughs and colds, asthma and other respiratory disorders and infections.
It is also used to treat angina, to improve the digestion, reduce intestinal gas and to encourage healthy sweating. Epazote is put to similar uses in Peru, but in the Peruvian Amazon, the plant is also used as a remedy for arthritis. It is socked for several days in water and then applied to the skin around the affected joints. Some people in South America also use epazote as an herbal remedy for menstrual problems, and apply it to the skin to treat bruises and wounds.
Epazote is used as a flavoring for food and as an herbal remedy and health food. The most frequent reasons for using epazote are as an ingredient in Mexican cookery, usually with beans, and as an herbal remedy that can get rid of parasitic intestinal worms.
The leaves of the epazote herb are used as an herb and eaten as a leaf vegetable. The strong flavor is comparable to fennel, tarragon or anise, in its pungent, medicinal taste. It can be too strong for some people, and it may take some time to get used to the flavor.
As an herb, epazote is commonly used to add some extra taste to black beans. In addition to its flavor, it is also prized for its ability to reduce the formation of gas in the digestive system that is usually common after a meal of beans. This property is also known as a carminative effect.
The epazote herb is also used in a number of other Mexican recipes. It can be added to soups, tamales, mole de olla, enchiladas, chilaquiles, sopes and quesadillas. Epazote is sometimes also used in some Caribbean cookery.
Eating the leaves of the epazote plant is also considered to be very healthy. In addition to reducing flatulence after eating beans, it is believed to be able to treat a number of conditions. Epazote has been used as an herbal remedy for malaria, chorea, catarrh, asthma, hysteria, dysmenorrheal (severe pain during menstruation) and amenorrhea (lack of menstruation in a woman who is of childbearing age).
In addition to the leaves, an essential oil derived from the epazote plant may also be used. This oil of chenopodium can be used to kill intestinal worms. It is a great deal stronger than the fresh or dried leaves, or a tea made from them. Epazote oil is not usually taken internally now, although it was once a very common treatment.
The essential oil obtained from epazote plants is composed of up to 70 percent ascaridole. This is an unusual chemical to find in an herb or spice, and it is largely responsible for the pungent scent of the plant, as well as its medicinal activities.
Epazote oil also contains limonene, which produces a citrus scent and can repel insects and p-cymene, as well as a selection of other chemicals that are present in lower concentrations: alpha pinene, terpinene, myrcene, camphor, trans isocarveol and thymol).
Many of the chemicals that are present in epazote oil, including ascaridole, belong to a group called monoterpenes. It is often suggested that epazote plants grown in Asia and Europe have lower concentrations of ascaridole than those that are grown in Mexico, but this has never been proven.
Fighting Intestinal Worms
It is the oil of the epazote plant that is believed to be able to kill intestinal worms. This traditional American remedy spread worldwide and was used for several centuries by people around the world. It was brought to Europe from the Americas during the 17th Century, and was then used as an herbal remedy until the 20th Century.
Oil of chenopodium was even listed as a recommended treatment for roundworms, hookworms and amebas in the US Pharmacopoeia, which is the physician’s guide to all of the standard therapeutic drugs and treatments. It was also commonly used to treat domestic animals and livestock suffering from worms. The potential side effects associated with this treatment meant that it was replaced by safer options, however, during the 1940s and it is no longer recommended by doctors.
Epazote is still used in some parts of the world to treat intestinal worm infections in both humans and animals. This use is particularly prevalent in Latin American countries such as Honduras. The treatment is usually prepared by grinding the leaves or the entire epazote plant and adding it to water, rather than extracting the oil, which can be too strong to be safe for the patient.
A number of uses of epazote have been investigated scientifically and found to have some degree of efficacy. Studies have tested the use of epazote against insects, parasites and bacteria, and as a treatment for malaria and cancer. Epazote has traditionally been used as a remedy for many other problems, however, which have not yet been scientifically tested.
These include its use for disorders of the digestive system, in pain relief, and as a treatment for menstrual conditions. The strongest scientific evidence for the efficacy of epazote as an herbal remedy comes from studies of its use as a treatment for intestinal parasites.
There are some reliable investigations that have found fairly strong evidence that it is an effective treatment, both in the lab and in human patients.
Main Ingredient of Epazote
The main active ingredient of epazote oil, ascaridole, was isolated for the first time in 1895 by a scientist living in Brazil. It was the first known naturally occurring organic peroxide, and is the main active ingredient of epazote treatments.
Ascaridole is believed to be responsible for the ability of epazote to kill intestinal worms, and a number of other medicinal properties have also been attributed to it, including the ability to relieve pain and to act as a sedative. It may also be able to work as an antifungal agent.
Evidence from animal and in vitro studies has suggested that ascaridole is effective against intestinal worms and parasites. It has also been demonstrated to work as an insecticide and to have anti malarial properties.
Human Clinical Trials
Clinical trials have also taken place in humans. As recently as 1996, a trial was conducted to test the efficacy of epazote leaf extracts against intestinal worms. The treatment was successful in 56 percent of cases. 72 patients, both children and adults, were included in the study.
The epazote extract was found to be 100 percent effective against two common intestinal parasites, Trichuris and Ancilostoma, but only 50 percent effective against the parasite Ascaris. In 2001, another study was carried out to investigate the use of epazote extract as a treatment for roundworm in children.
Thirty patients were included in this study. It was found that epazote was 100 percent effective against tapeworms, and was able to eliminate the eggs of Ascaris parasites with an efficacy of 86.7 percent, and to decrease parasitic burden by 59.5 percent.
Studies for Fighting Cancer
Studies have also been conducted to evaluate other potential uses of epazote, including possible activity against cancerous cells, inhibition of stomach ulcer formation, and elimination of antibiotic resistant strains of Mycobacterium tuberculosis, the bacteria that causes tuberculosis.
Some evidence has been found to support these possible uses, but there have not as yet been any clinical trials in humans, and there is no definitive proof that epazote is an effective and practical choice for treatment of any of these conditions.
The recommended dose of epazote leaf decoction for the treatment of intestinal parasites is a half cup of standard decoction, to be drunk before breakfast, over three consecutive mornings.
This is generally followed by a dose of a mild laxative on the fourth day, which will help to expel the parasites and their eggs, once they are dead or dying. The treatment is usually repeated after a fortnight in order to get rid of any worms that may have hatched from eggs that were not killed by the first round of treatment.
A decoction of the leaves is also used as an herbal remedy to treat digestive, respiratory and menstrual problems. These conditions are usually treated with half cup doses that are taken as necessary.
Buying and Storage
Epazote leaves can be bought from most Mexican grocery or food stores, in both its fresh and air dried forms. In cookery, a teaspoonful of the dried leaves should be treated as equivalent to approximately seven fresh epazote leaves, or one branch of the fresh plant.
It is possible to leave the fresh leaves to sir dry in order to store them for longer, but when placed inside a plastic bag, the fresh leaves will last for up to a week.
A 10 milligram dose of epazote oil can cause vomiting, sleepiness, weakness, convulsions, and respiratory and cardiac problems. It may even be fatal. It is these adverse effects that resulted in the replacement of epazote oil as a recommended treatment for intestinal parasites in the US Pharmacopoeia.
The essential oil of epazote is not recommended for internal use due to its toxicity, but it is possible to use the leaves of the plant in herbal remedies, since these contain lower levels of the toxic substances than the seeds or oils derived from the whole plant. According to the World Health Organization, a decoction made from 20 grams of epazote leaves, was effective against intestinal parasites without causing any significant side effects.
Pregnant women should never take epazote, due to its toxicity and the possible damage it could do to the unborn baby. Epazote has traditionally been used to induce abortion, and although there is no scientific proof that it is effective in doing this, it is inadvisable to take the risk.
Epazote is not regulated in the US, since it is considered to be a food product rather than a medicine. There are no restrictions against purchasing epazote products.
Fresh and dried epazote leaves can be purchased from specialist grocery stores, particularly those that are oriented towards Mexican cooking. It is also possible to buy the dried leaves online. A jar of dried leaves for use in food can be bought for well under $2. Much larger packages are available for frequent users.
Epazote seeds are also available from online retailers and gardening supply stores for just a few dollars. These can be used to grow a crop of epazote at home, although in parts of the world where this rapidly reproducing plant grows in the wild, many people will already have a few plants in their gardens.
Health food stores and websites may also have epazote products for sale. It is possible to find epazote pills. A bottle can be bought for under $20.