HSA Webinar: Growing and Using Herbs of the Southwestern Missions

Author Jacqueline Soule will be presenting this month’s webinar on Wed, March 25 at 1pm – click here to register. This article is excerpted from her book, Father Kino’s Herbs: Growing and Using Them Today.

Epazote – An Efficacious ‘Erbcover kino

By Dr. Jacqueline A. Soule

Did you know that you can speak at least one word of Nahuatl, the language spoken in Mexico pre-conquest? Epazote is the Nahuatl name for Dysphania ambrosioides (formerly Chenopodium ambrosioides). English common names include wormseed, Jesuit tea, American wormseed, Mexican tea, and Jerusalem oak.

By the time of contact between the New and Old Worlds, epazote had been cultivated for well over a thousand years in southern and southeast coastal Mexico.  It was, and still is, a principal flavoring for a large number of Yucatan and Veracruz dishes and is indispensable for cooking black beans.

Epazote in Cooking

Like the Old World herbs cumin and ginger, epazote has the unique ability to help break down hard-to-digest vegetable proteins. These difficult proteins are found most often in beans, peas, and members of the cabbage family. A few leaves of epazote cooked in the pot with the potential offender can go a long way towards rendering the bean proteins, well, shall we say, “ungaseous.”

epazote 4631088290 wiki cc 2.0Epazote was popular on the coast and in warmer climates of the Aztec and Mayan areas but had also made its way into Central Mexico and the Aztec National Botanical Gardens. It was traded in the marketplace of Tenochtitlan in the 1530s.  The most popular culinary uses were to cook it with beans, nopales (prickly pear cactus pads), and fish dishes.

Epazote in Medicine

Ethnomedicinally, epazote has been used in a decoction as a vermifuge (against intestinal worms) and in an infusion to help induce labor, reduce menstrual cramps, and as a general post-partum tonic. It is also used in the treatment of amenorrhea, dysmenorrhea, malaria, chorea, hysteria, catarrh, and asthma. Oil of chenopodium is derived from epazote and is a proven anthelmintic, that is, it kills intestinal worms, and was once listed for this use in the U.S. Pharmacopeia. It is also cited as an antispasmodic.

Medicinals on Migration

Epazote was brought northward into the Southwest United States primarily by natives resettled into the region by Spanish decree. It is recorded as planted in the herb gardens at San Xavier del Bac Mission (outside Tucson, Arizona) in 1752.  Epazote found its way into eastern North America and Canada. It was a popular vermifuge as its effects were more predictable and less violent than European wormwood (Artemisia absinthium). There are no reports of Yankees using it for culinary purposes.

Planting and Careepazote NRCS wiki cc 0.0 PD

Plant epazote from seed in spring once night temperatures rise above the low 50s. You can also start indoors and transplant once danger of frost is past. Seeds can take as long as four weeks to germinate. Plants will thrive through the warm season and freeze to the ground at 35℉, but often regrow from the roots. At 20℉, the roots will be killed as well.

Epazote plants do well in full sun, but some afternoon shade is appreciated in the Southwest by this tropical herb. Soil can be poor, even clay, but plants grow best in average, well-drained soils. Epazote can be grown in containers that are at least twelve inches deep.

Epazote can reach five feet tall, but at that height, it will be scraggly and unattractive. Pinch epazote plants often, especially the central branches, to keep it around two to three feet tall, compact, leafy, and with an appealing form in the garden. Usually a single plant epazote AMP 1902139 web cropprovides enough herbage for a household.

Epazote reseeds readily, so pinch off the seed stalks, or be ready to ruthlessly weed out excess plants the following spring. On the other hand, seed heads turn an attractive bronze in autumn, and the lesser goldfinches enjoy the seeds. Ideally, find a less-used corner of the garden for epazote where, if seeds spread, they will not be a major problem. A strongly scented herb, epazote is reported as a deer repellent, and I can report that javalina, jackrabbits, and cottontails avoid eating the plants.

Harvesting and Use

Epazote is best used fresh for culinary purposes. Chop or mince leaves and add early to dishes that require long cooking, like beans, roasts, soups, or stews. Use one tablespoon minced leaves per cup of beans or to a two pound roast. Do not use it as a garnish since the taste is bitter. If not fresh, frozen epazote may be used as a culinary herb. In my tests, epazote does not have the same “digestive” effect after drying.

Medicinal Disclaimer: It is the policy of The Herb Society of America, Inc. not to advise or recommend herbs for medicinal or health use. This information is intended for educational purposes only and should not be considered as a recommendation or an endorsement of any particular medical or health treatment. Please consult a health care provider before pursuing any herbal treatments.


Jacqueline Soule business portrait. Tucson, AZ. © 2012 Mark Turner

Jacqueline Soule Tucson, AZ. © 2012 Mark Turner

Jacqueline writes about gardening for a living. It’s a job she does in two very different USDA zones – 10 and 4. Nine months of the year she lives on an acre in the Tucson Mountains, and 3 months on an acre in Vermont. In both places she happily grows numerous herbs because they are about the only plant the local critters will not munch to the ground.

© copyright Jacqueline A. Soule. This article is excerpted from Father Kino’s Herbs: Growing and Using Them Today written by the author. All rights reserved. You must ask permission to republish an entire blog post or article. You can use a short excerpt, but you must give proper credit, plus you must include a link back to the original post on our site. No stealing photos. To purchase this and other books by Jacqueline Soule, visit her website.

Chocolate – Food of the Gods

By Maryann Readal

In 1753, it was Carl Linnaeus who gave cacao, The Herb Society of America’s Herb of the Month, its botanical name: Theobroma cacao, from theos meaning god and broma meaning food – food of the gods. The Mayans gave it the name xocoatl, (pronounced sho-KWA-til). According to The True History of Chocolate authors Sophie and Michael Coe, the most likely history of the word “chocolate” is that the Spaniards combined the Maya word chocol, meaning “hot,” and the Aztec atl, meaning “water,” to produce chocolatl.

It is believed that Olmec Indians began using cacao beans for beverages as early as 250 BCE. But it was the Mayans who really domesticated the tree and discovered its many uses. They were the first to grow cacao trees on plantations. The drink they made from cacao beans was reserved for the Mayan wealthy and important and was used in religious ceremonies. The beans were also used as money in trade with the Aztecs.

theobroma

Flowers on cacao tree

The Aztecs, however, began to flavor the ground beans with other spices such as chile, cinnamon, pepper, and vanilla and then frothed the beverage with a molinillo, the Mexican chocolate whisk. The drink they created was also reserved for high government officials, priests, and the warrior classes. The Aztecs believed that their god, Quetzalcoatl, taught them about the many uses of cacao.

Along comes Christopher Columbus in 1492 on his fourth try to find a water route to India, but discovers the Americas instead. He brings back the cacao beans to King Ferdinand and Isabella, who were not as enamored with the beans as they were with the other treasures he brought from the New World.  A few years later, Hernando Cortez came to the Vera Cruz, Mexico area in the early 1500’s and learned first hand from the Aztec emperor, Montezuma, the exhilarating uses of cacao. He brought his discovery of the effects of the cacao beverage and its preparation to King Charles V of Spain, and this time it was greeted with much interest and led to Cortez conquering the Aztec Empire and developing  large cacao plantations for Spain. This was the beginning of the Spanish monopoly of cacao beans that lasted 200 years.

Europe accepted the use of chocolate as a medicine because the Mesoamericans used it as a remedy for many ailments for centuries. And Europeans found that it was a medicine that had pleasant, euphoric effects. These effects were what caused the church at the height of the Middle Ages to circumscribe its use, claiming that it caused immoral behaviors. Monks were forbidden to use chocolate and it was not allowed to be drunk while fasting. The chocolate beverage could only be drunk for medicinal reasons.

The debate about the medicinal qualities of chocolate continued well into the 1900’s in Europe, with many noted physicians chiming in on the subject. In the 18th century, it was Carl Linnaeus who wrote about the nourishment and therapeutic qualities of chocolate saying that “it could be used to lose weight, help lung and muscles diseases, hypochondria, and hemorrhoids.” In fact, cacao butter, which is the fat extracted from ground cacao beans, is still used today in suppositories for hemorrhoids. Now that will make you pause before eating a white chocolate rabbit at Easter.

The Nestle company introduced milk into chocolate to create milk chocolate in 1867, which completely changed the taste of chocolate. This new chocolate reignited the health debate concerning chocolate, with physicians claiming that the milk chocolate caused obesity, dental problems, and an unhealthy lifestyle.

In the early 20th century, chocolate became more important as food rather than as medicine. In fact, chocolate was included in World War II’s K and D rations as a healthy and quick source of energy for soldiers on the battlefield. In her book Plants Go To War, Judith Sumner discusses the use of chocolate in British Intelligence efforts in which chocolate bars were “impregnated with garlic to mimic the smell of the French whom they were impersonating.” She also reports that there was a German plan to assassinate Winston Churchill with a booby-trapped chocolate bar. The plot was never implemented.

In 1930, Nestle introduced white chocolate, which is cacao butter mixed with sugar. And in 2018 the Swiss company Barry-Callebaut introduced a ruby–or “pink”–chocolate into the market.

chocolate, pink

pink chocolate

Named the fourth chocolate, it is pink and fruity tasting.  This chocolate reportedly comes from special ruby cacao beans.

Debate and research continues on chocolate as a medicine.  Researchers do ascribe chocolate with anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties.  Some data also shows that apart from its pleasant effects, chocolate consumption improves brain function. Studies also link the flavonoids in dark chocolate with a reduced risk of diabetes. Consumption of dark chocolate is also believed to protect the heart.

However, chocolate may be returning to its Aztec roots with chocolate artisans introducing herbs, spices, flowers, and all kinds of ingredients into chocolate, making it not only a food of the gods but a food of the people, too – especially around Valentine’s Day.

A nice history of chocolate can be found at The Nibble https://www.thenibble.com/reviews/main/chocolate/the-history-of-chocolate.asp.

And for more information and chocolate recipes, please see The Herb Society of America’s Herb of the Month web page for February.


Maryann is the Secretary of The Herb Society of America. She is a member of the Texas Thyme Unit in Huntsville, TX. She gardens among the pine trees in the Piney Woods of East Texas.

Plants Go To War – A Book Review

By Maryann Readal

To quote author Judith Sumner in the preface to her new book, Plants Go to War: A Botanical Plants go to war coverHistory of World War II, “The war could not have been won without rubber, but the same might be said about wheat, cotton, lumber, quinine, and penicillin, all with botanical origins.” In her book, Sumner documents many of the plants that were critical to World War II efforts on all sides of the battlefield. Indeed, her research is exhaustive in that she covers not only the military uses of plants but also civilian uses as well by the major countries involved in the war.

As the war disrupted supplies of plants needed for medicine, food, and manufacturing, governments had to look for alternatives. Some were successful in growing tropical plants and food crops on their own soil; some began to look for chemical alternatives. A chemical synthesis of quinine to fight malaria was one of those discovered alternatives.

Sumner reveals that adequate nutrition was a monumental consideration for governments. Not only troop nutrition, but also civilian nutrition, as it was important that good physical and mental health of all people was critical to support the war effort. Victory gardens were born then, with many people growing their own fruits and vegetables so that soldiers would have enough to eat. In Great Britain, people were encouraged to grow vegetables even in bombed-out craters. Schoolchildren would go on farming vacations in order to grow and harvest crops due to victory-gardens-for-family-and-country-these-victory-gardeners-are-transferring-1024the shortage of men to do the farming. In Germany, the Lebensraum idea was the impetus behind Hitler’s attempt to secure more land for German farmers to grow German native plants for food and other purposes.

In reading Judith’s book, I got a glimpse into the incredible foresight and organization governments need to conduct a war on the battlefield, while simultaneously sustaining the home front. Reading the book also enabled me to better understand some of my parents’ attitudes about food and thrift that carried over into everyday life, even when the war was over.

To those of us who are involved with the collection and spreading of plant, and particularly herb, knowledge, this book demonstrates how important that work is. For as Ms. Sumner says in her book, “practical information about how plants could be used for survival came from botanical gardens, herbaria, and notes archived in botanical libraries.”

Sumner says that her “goal was to write an encyclopedic synthesis of civilian and military plant uses and botanical connections as they relate to World War II.” I believe she has accomplished this goal with her authoritative and informative book. I am sure that it is destined to be a classic source on this topic. Her book is a reminder of how important plants and plant knowledge, collected during peace time, can be in a world crisis.


JUDITH SUMNER is a botanist and author with particular interest in the historical uses of plants. She is a frequent lecturer for audiences of all kinds and has taught for many years at colleges and botanical gardens. She lives in Worcester, MA. Judith received The Herb Society of America’s Gertrude Foster writing award in 2007.

Plants Go To War: A Botanical History of World War II by Judith Sumner. Publisher: McFarland. McFarlandBooks.com


Maryann is the Secretary of The Herb Society of America. She is a member of the Texas Thyme Unit in Huntsville, TX. She gardens among the pines in the Piney Woods of East Texas.