Artemisia Ludoviciana ssp. Mexicana (Estafiate)

Estafiate or iztauyatl (Artemisia ludoviciana ssp. mexicana) is one of the most popular medicinal plants in Mexican phytotherapy and is nowadays used especially for gastrointestinal pain, as a vermifuge and as a bitter stimulant. The historical and modern uses of this species are reviewed. The first report of its medicinal use dates back to the 16th century, but at that time it was used for completely different illnesses. Only very limited pharmacological studies to evaluate these claims are available; anti-inflammatory, antibacterial and antihelmintic effects have been reported. The aerial parts contain a large number of sesquiterpene lactones, flavonoids as well as essential oil which has not yet been studied in detail.

Estafiate or iztauyatl (Artemisia ludoviciana ssp. mexicana) is one of the most popular remedies in Mexican phytotherapy. It is frequently sold in markets in the cities and also grown in many house gardens (). It is thus a locally important economic product and a phytotherapeutic resource which requires documentation of its regional or national importance as well as evaluation and monitoring for efficacy and safety. Plants generally are an important medicinal resource to many people in Mexico and other South and Central American countries () and some have a history that has been documented as early as the 16th century. The uses and importance of a plant may vary considerably between different regions and times; some of these may be of little or no therapeutic value and it is therefore a legitimate scientific aim to select and promulgate appropriate therapeutic uses.

Artemisia Ludoviciana: Botany

Artemisia ludoviciana Nutt. ssp. mexicana Nutt. (Syn.: A. mexicana Willd., Artemisia vulgaris var. mexicana Torr & A. Gray; Artemisia vulgaris ssp. mexicana H.M. Hall & Clem.) The species Artemisia ludoviciana is a highly complex taxon of the tribe Anthemideae, which is regarded as including several ecogeographically significant, but wholly confluent varieties () or – more frequently – as including approximately half a dozen subspecies (). The material sold in Mexican markets is generally considered to include only the subspecies “mexicana”. This subspecies is distinguished from most of the others by having a relatively loose and open inflorescence (at least in well developed plants) with more or less elongated branches and from the subspecies “albula” by relatively large (5-10+ cm long) and slender leaves. The leaves may be entire but are usually deeply divided into 3 or 5 narrow, elongated lobes. All subspecies of Artemisia ludoviciana are aromatic, rhizomatous and perennial herbs, 30 to 100 cm high, more or less white and tomentose above ground, with a 2.5-5 mm high involucrum and inconspicuous flower head. It is native in pine and oak forests in the highlands of Mexico (1,700-2,800 m above sea level), but today it is encountered most frequently in house yards and gardens (). It ranges as far North as Texas and the Southern Great Plains (New Mexico and occasionally Arizona).


The species is most popular in Mexico as a remedy for various gastrointestinal disorders. The modern name estafiate is derived from the Nahua term “iztauhyatl” “bitter/salty is its water” and refers to the bitter taste of the leaf extracts. In the following section the uses of this plant in historical and modern times is discussed.

Uses Before the 19th Century

For the history of the uses of this plant in the period before and after the conquest we have to rely on some colonial codices. The best known ones are the Codex Cruz Badiano and the Codex Florentino. The first is a herbal written in Nahuatl by the Aztec healer Martin de la Cruz from Tezcoco, who was at the Colegio de Santa Cruz in Tlatelolco. It was translated into Latin by Juan Badiano and given to the King of Spain Carlos I in 1552. It was written rather hastily and has numerous color illustrations of medicinal plants. There have been several attempts to identify plants from this herbal () and most of the identifications seem to be botanically sound. The major problem with this source is that by this time the European conquest of Mexico-Tenochtitlan 30 years previously had already had an impact. In addition the Nahuatl author attempted to show “European sophistication” in his work ().

Another important source is the work of Fray Bernadino de Sahagun; he was a Franciscan missionary who arrived in Mexico in 1529 and worked there until his death in 1590. It is certainly the best source available for the early historical period. De Sahagun left several codices (among them the Codex Florentino, compiled ca. 1570) and on the basis of these documents he wrote the “Historia General de las Cosas de Nueva Espaiia” (publ. 1793). From an ethnobotanical point of view this source is somewhat more difficult to use than the Codex Cruz Badiano since there are fewer botanical identifications and these are less secure. The strength lies more than anything else in its description and analysis of medicinal concepts (). The third important early source is the “Historia Natural de Nueva Espafia” by Francisco Hernandez, the personal physician to Philip II of Spain. He was sent to Mexico and between 1571-1577 gathered information on plants, animals and minerals of the New World. The complete work was never published and the original manuscript was destroyed during a fire at the Escorial palace, but several abridged and amended versions were published in later centuries.

Artemisia ludoviciana ssp. mexicana is not included as a botanically identifiable drawing in the Codex Cruz Badiano, but iztauyatl () is mentioned several times in this source (Folios 26r, 35r, 37r, 37v, 50r, 55v) as well as in the Codex Florentino. Uses in the Codex Cruz Badiano mentioned are: for debility of the hands (together with two other plants), for rectal problems (“ani uitium emendatur herbis” and “vitium sedis”; with 5 other plants), for aching piles [with 12 other plants, 3 types of “stones” (minerals) and one type of earth], as a remedy of second choice in order to recover from tiredness (together with 4 plants and 3 types of stones), for those injured by lightning and against lice (prepared in grease together with one plant and the ashes of the head of a mouse) and for treating “excessive heat”. In the Codex Florentino the plant is considered to be useful to get rid of phlegm, headache (?), “inner heat” as well as for cleaning the urine and together with another plant (cuauhyayahuae) to help with heart problems. Applied externally it is listed for abscesses of the neck and in cases of dandruff (Codex Florentino ca. 1570: X,165,140; XI149,165). Gregorio Lopez (1542-1596) advised that the plant should be taken if one feels sick or dizzy or if there is retention of urine. It can also be used as an infusion against rheumatism. Juan de Esteyneffer (1664-1716) used the plant for numerous illnesses: as an anthelmintic and stomachic, against paralysis, vomiting, constipation, liver obstruction, dropsy, for “mal de loanda” etc. (). In the 18th century it was said to give strength and boldness, to strengthen the spirit, to alleviate tiredness, to “correct” the menstrual cycle and for fever (). Fray Juan de Navarro, whose manuscript bears the date 1801 and who based his studies on the earlier works lists Yztauyatl as useful to treat gastrointestinal pain caused by colics and for pain of the flanks. Some combined preparations with other plants are also listed ()

Modern Internal Uses for Gastrointestinal Complaints in Mexico

In modern Mexico this species is widely used and frequently sold in markets or little shops as a medicinal plant. Mexicans generally use the infusion of the leaves as a bitter stimulant, against gastrointestinal colics and the powdered flowers as a vermifuge, stimulant and emmenagogue (). Ruiz Salazar (), for example, mentions the following uses: lack of appetite, stomach-ache and parasites, stomach and liver infections. On the market of Sonora (Mexico D.F.) the plant is sold for the treatment of dysentery and vomiting. The flowers are traded as useful remedies for colic, dysentery, diarrhoea, indigestion, pain and stomach-aches (). A tea, prepared from the leaves, is sold in the markets for treating various gastrointestinal disorders (). The flowers and other aerial parts of the plant are used by the lowland Mixe as tea for stomach-ache and vomiting (). The flowers are used for the treatment of intestinal parasites “lombrices” in Morelos and in numerous other parts of Mexico (). It is also used as a laxative, but should be avoided during pregnancy because of its emmenagogic effects (). In “Izucar de Matamoros” it was used as an infusion to cure “bilis”, and stomach-ache (). The Huastec treat vomiting and gastrointestinal pain with the root (), the Huichol the same syndrome with the leaves (). Also, its uses as an anti-emetic, anthelmintic and for dysentery and dysmenorrhoea are reported from Veracruz ().

Modern Internal Uses for Other Illnesses in Mexico

There are only a few scattered reports on other uses available in the literature: for colds (), bronchitis (), chest congestion (), heart diseases (), sudden fright and some other “culture-bound” syndromes () as well as menstrual complaints ().

Modern External Uses in Mexico

The leaves are frequently used to treat earache. In central Mexico it seems to be an important remedy for the folk illness “aire” which is said to be associated with headache, dizziness and vomiting (). Other uses include as an analgesic, for externally cleansing swellings, infections, and inflammations, for headaches, sudden fright, for ritual cleansing ceremonies and in the treatment of swollen feet ().

Biological and Pharmacological Activities

No detailed pharmacological study on the species is available. The plant is regarded to possess spasmolytic and antihelmintic properties, but the experimental basis for this is insufficient (). The ethanolic crude extract was shown to possess antimicrobial activity against gram positive, (Bacillus subtilis DSM 347 and Micrococcus luteus DSM 348) and gram negative bacteria (E. coli DSM 1077) and against non-pathogenic fungi (Cladosporium cucumerinum, Penicillium oxalicum). This extract was inactive against Entamoeba bistoytica in vitro (). Studies from the late 19th century indicate anthelmintic effects of the plant extract (). Martinez, () remarked that Artemisia ludoviciana ssp. mexicana is regarded as less toxic than, for example, Artemisia absinthium (cf. Villada, 1889). The plant is reported to have spasmolytic properties and camphor as an active ingredient is a mild irritant, stimulant and reliever of colics. It may thus be an effective vermicide and appetite stimulant (). Recently it was shown that the ethanolic extract of the aerial parts is a potent and specific inhibitor of the transcription factor NF-kB (). Sesquiterpene lactones are considered to be compounds responsible for this activity ().

Artemisia Ludoviciana: Conclusion

The taxon under discussion is a widely used and very important medicinal plant in Mexico with a well defined principal use: the treatment of various forms of gastrointestinal cramps and pain. The plant has been used for at least 500 years, but its uses seem to have undergone considerable changes. It is likely that the sesquiterpene lactones are pharmacologically relevant to its modern uses, not just as bitter stimulants, but also because they have several well documented pharmacologcal effects i.e. cytotoxic, antibacterial, antiinflammatory, and anthelmintic (). However, at present there are insufficient pharmacological and parasitological/biological data available for this species, and therefore detailed pharmacological and/or clinical studies of standardized extracts from estafiate are required. This species is an economically and botanically important member of the genus Artemisia for which further evaluation would be justified.

One fascinating question is whether the use of this species as a gastrointestinal remedy was introduced into Mexico by Europeans based on the similarity of this taxon with Artemisia absinthium or whether the uses developed independently in parallel to the uses of the European absinthe. The uses reported in the early sources are distinct from the modern ones. This may be explained by an introduction of the use as a gastrointestinal remedy during the Spanish colonial rule. While this is the most likely explanation, alternatively, one may speculate that the use of “iztauyatl” as a gastrointestinal remedy was so widely distributed in the Nahua population, that it was not considered to be worth mentioning in texts such as the Codex Cruz-Badiano or the Codex Florentine


Selections from the book: “Artemisia”. Edited by Colin W. Wright. Series: “Medicinal and Aromatic Plants — Industrial Profiles”. 2002.