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Epazote, a wild herb worth taming in the garden

Epazote leaf detail
You can find epazote seeds for sale at local nurseries now (and epazote seedlings in a few months), though the plant is still considered a weed by many. The annual herb grows wild throughout Mexico and the southwestern U.S., earning it a well-deserved reputation as highly invasive. Despite eradication efforts by state highway cleanups, it pops up in sidewalks and on freeway meridians throughout Arizona and Texas. That's because the seed heads that arrive in late summer and fall scatter easily, jumping from garden to walkway in the blink of a season.

The name epazote is a combination of Aztec words for "skunk" and "sweat." One common name for the plant is wormseed. The plant is smelly and toxic if consumed in large quantity, so why do people grow it?

Any fan of Mexican cuisine will appreciate the taste epazote can bring. When added to stews, sauces and soups, the herb adds a distinctly piquant flavor -- wild, peppery, minty. Throughout Mexico it is used in frijoles de la olla, beans simmered in a pot with water and onion. There is no substitute. It doesn’t take much epazote — a sprig or two added in the last 20 minutes of cooking will suffice. A bonus: It's said to reduce flatulence.

Epazote is easy to grow in Southern California and can be perennial if winter is mild. But be careful about your choice in location. A UC study indicated that the ascaridole in the leaves inhibits the growth of nearby plants, so you'll want to keep it away from other herbs and vegetables.

Gardener Martha ServinLike mint, epazote is a good candidate for containers. Pruning the center stalk will make it bushy, and clipping off the flowers will promote more leaf production.

At the Stanford-Avalon Community Garden in Los Angeles, epazote is grown as a row crop. At the Francis Avenue Community Garden, gardener Martha Servin, right, had a small hedge set at the back of a bed. “We use it a lot,” she said.

I put one epazote plant by some drought-tolerant California sages. I rarely watered the epazote, and I never fed it. Nearly a year later, it’s still sending up small runners.

When I’m cooking beans, there’s always enough of the herb. If asked for my secret ingredient, I demur. Should I say wormseed? I don’t think so. Epazote sounds so much better.

-- Jeff Spurrier

The Global Garden, a look at our multicultural city through what it plants, appears here on Tuesdays. For an easy way to follow future installments, join our Facebook page for gardening in the West.

Epazote seed
The plant going to seed.

 

Epazote leaf
New growth pushing out.

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Photos: Ann Summa

 
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