While weeding this past week, I found a plant native to South America and Mexico. The herb, Epazote or Dysphania (formerly Chenopodium) ambrosioides is commonly used in Mexican cooking and has been used for centuries in the Yucatan as a medicine.
The common name Epazote is derived from the Nahuatl, epazōtl, meaning “skunk smell.”
Besides cooking, the herb’s primary use as a medicine is for intestinal parasites and a mild laxative. While some indigenous people, like the Cofan of the Amazon use epazote tied around their arm as an aromatic, most Americans consider the smell of the plant objectionable, calling it skunk weed.
While harvesting the plant, I found the smell pleasant, but very strong when fresh. The smell and taste mellows as it dries. Cooking with the herb has produced some of the best chili I’ve tasted. Though I’ve tried reproducing my grandmother’s recipe over time, it was never quite right, until I added epazote (while experimenting).
The whole leaf when cooked with beans, is supposed to eliminate flatulence and the tea can be used to reduce fever and help with nervous disorders. Most natives using the plant have also found it to be a good insecticide against mosquitoes and flies.
One of the primary chemical constituents of epazote is ascaridol, which is found to have sedative, pain relief and anti-fungal properties. Most recent studies have found the chemical constituents also have strong anti-malarial properties and insecticidal actions.
Despite its benefits the herb has become an invasive weed in Northwest Arkansas. It sprouts readily and is not a cash crop.
“For intestinal parasites: one-half cup of a leaf decoction once daily on an empty stomach for three days. A decoction of the leaves is employed (in ½ cup dosages) for menstrual, respiratory, and digestive problems on an as-needed basis.”
Leslie Taylor, The Healing Power of Rainforest Herbs (2005).