Epazote is a piece of living history. Native to Central and South America, this herb was prized by the Aztec culture for culinary and medicinal uses. Today epazote has naturalized in the United States along roadsides (frequently called a weed) and is known to grow in New York’s Central Park. Some call epazote a weed, while others enjoy it as a culinary companion to cooked beans. If you’re the latter, try growing epazote plants in your garden.
Note: While we do not currently carry this variety, we offer this information for gardeners who wish to grow it.
In the Garden
Epazote adds a distinct flavor to Mexican dishes and is a staple ingredient in bean dishes, both for its taste and its anti-flatulent properties. Like cilantro, epazote has a fragrance and flavor that folks either love or hate. Leaves have an aroma that seems to smell differently to different people. It’s been described as having tones of lemon, petroleum, savory, gasoline, mint, turpentine, and even putty. Despite the sometimes odd fragrance, the unique flavor makes epazote an ingredient that can’t be duplicated or replaced in recipes.
Pregnant or nursing women should not consume epazote in any form. No one should ingest the seeds or oil, which are poisonous. It’s also wise to avoid consuming the flowering tips of stems.
Soil, Planting, and Care
Epazote is native to tropical climes. In North America, plants are annual in zones 2 to 7 and perennial in warmer zones, typically growing 2 to 4 feet tall. In all regions, you can grow epazote in a container, bringing it indoors for winter in coldest climes.
Plant epazote outdoors in spring after all danger of frost has passed and when night temperatures are consistently above 50 degrees F. Place plants in full sun in average, well-drained soil. Drainage is important; don’t place where roots will sit in water. Leaves develop best flavor in full sun.
In early spring, fertilize epazote with Bonnie Herb, Vegetable & Flower Plant Food. This organically based fertilizer is low in salt and won’t cause ugly brown leaf tips.
Epazote doesn’t usually have pest problems; the aromatic leaves tend to repel insects. Some gardeners report that crushing and scattering leaves acts as ant repellent.
In the garden, epazote sets an abundance of seeds and definitely has the potential to be invasive. Clip and destroy seedheads to limit self-sowing.
Harvest and Storage
Harvest leaves at any point after plants are established. Pick leaves in the morning, after dew dries. Air dry leaves on screens or gather stems in bunches and hang upside down.
Use epazote leaves fresh or dried. The flavor is strong; use sparingly to season dishes until you know the level of taste your family likes. Older leaves have the strongest flavor; younger leaves are more mild. Store harvested epazote for fresh use by slipping stems into a glass of water or refrigerating them wrapped in damp paper towels and tucked into a loose (unsealed) plastic bag.
Many recipes call for adding a few sprigs of epazote during the last minutes of cooking. When using dried epazote, leaves will soften with longer cooking time. Often recipes will require “one stem of epazote.” That’s roughly equivalent to 1 teaspoon of dried, chopped herb. Foods with which epazote can play a supporting role include refried beans, squash dishes, chili, split pea soup, quesadillas, and egg dishes. The flavor complements cilantro and green chile peppers, as well as pork, corn, shellfish, and fish.
To preserve epazote, dry whole leaves and store in sealed containers in a dark place. To release flavor, crumble leaves finely just before using. You can also freeze epazote, whole or chopped, in ice cube trays filled with water.
Some folks harvest epazote stems and dry them for a wreath base in dried floral creations. Use caution when handling dried epazote; the resin in leaves can cause dermatitis or other allergic reactions in some individuals.
Epazote seeds and oil should never be consumed; both are poisonous. Women who are pregnant or nursing should not ingest epazote in any form.