For an unusual herb in your landscape, why not try a unique shrub that was around before dinosaurs roamed the earth – ephedra. In fact, there is some evidence that dinosaurs fed on this unusual herb, and it has lived on while the dinosaurs are gone. You gotta respect a history like that.
Ephedra is a unique looking shrub, well adapted to life in the Southwest. Photo by H. E. Price
Various species of ephedra are found around the world, and human use of the herb dates back at least 5000 years. As with many long used herbs, the common name and scientific name are the same, ephedra and Ephedra. In the Southwest, ephedra is also commonly called Mormon tea or joint fir. In the Tucson area, Ephedra trifurca is the most prevalent species.
There are seven species of ephedra that grow in the Southwest. Photo by Stan Shebs.
Ephedra has long been used as a herbal tea, a morning “pick me up” by Mormons and gentiles alike who wish to avoid caffeine. The compound ependrine is a proven stimulant (exciting ephedra!). Excessive use of ephedra can be a problem however, especially when extracted from the plant and condensed into pill form (see Note Below). That can be said about many herbal remedies. All things in moderation is a good idea when using any plant product. Even too much spinach can have consequences, but that is a story for another day.
Ephedra trifurca is the most common ephedra in the Tucson area. Photo by D. Coetzee.
Finely ground ephedra twigs have been used in exfoliating skin wash blends, used to help remove dead skin cells. The plant is relatively high in silica, a compound used to make glass.
Our native ephedra (Ephedra trifurca) is ideal for the full sun landscape featuring native plants. Its leafless olive green branches reach skyward with a dichotomous branching pattern that is a joy to trace with your eye. Ephedra is a low water plant, and does best in a well-drained soil.
Ephedra seed in borne in tiny cones. Pluck and plant the entire cone if you wish to grow ephedra.
Photo by J. Decruyenaere.
Ephedra is very easy to grow, but tough to get started. If you find some in a nursery, be very careful to transplant it with the root ball intact. You can try it from cuttings, and I have had the best success with young wood cuttings taken after the first monsoon rain has soaked the plant. You can also grow it from “seed” (technically cone-like structures, not true seeds). As soon as the tiny hairs exerted from the cone have dried up, harvest these cones and plant them in a blend of three parts sand to one part potting soil sand. Keep evenly moist for three months and you should see results.
Harvest & Use
If you wish to avoid coffee or Chinese tea because of the “ungreen” way these products are grown, harvested, and shipped, ephedra tea can serve as a morning beverage. Steep a tea using one heaping teaspoon of finely broken dried branches per cup of water. This makes a brew similar to green tea in intensity of flavor.
Ephedra makes a bitter, stimulating morning tea.
Photo by J.A. Soule.
Harvest and dry ephedra in early spring before it begins it’s bloom cycle. This is when it is most potent. Use dried material within one year.
Ephedra is easy to dry for later use, and makes a more palatable, less bitter, brew than fresh material.
Photo by J. A. Soule.
Note Below: A history of recent ephedra misuse and subsequent ban:
Steve Bechler, a pitcher for the Baltimore Orioles, died of complications from heatstroke following a spring training workout on 17 February 2003. The medical examiner found that ephedra toxicity played a “significant role” in Bechler’s sudden death. Following Bechler’s death, the FDA re-opened its efforts to regulate ephedra use. Bruce Silverglade, legal director for the Center for Science in the Public Interest said, “All of a sudden [after Bechler’s death] Congress dropped objections to an ephedra ban and started demanding the FDA act.” Senator Orrin Hatch, who in 1999 had helped block the FDA’s attempts to regulate ephedra, said in March 2003 that, “It has been obvious to even the most casual observer that problems exist,” and called FDA regulation of ephedra “long overdue.” Given Hatch’s prior defense of ephedra, Time magazine described his statement as “a dazzling display of hypocrisy.”
In response to renewed calls for the regulation of ephedra, the FDA commissioned a large scale analysis of ephedra’s safety and efficacy. The study found that ephedra promoted modest short-term weight loss, but there was no evidence that it was effective for long-term weight loss or performance enhancement.
Almost simultaneously, a study in Annals of Internal Medicine reported that ephedra was 100 to 700 times more likely to cause a significant adverse reaction than other commonly used herbal supplements such as kava-kava or Ginkgo biloba (neither of which affect the heart).
On December 30, 2003, the FDA issued a press release recommending that consumers stop buying and using ephedra, and indicating its intention to ban the sale of ephedra-containing supplements. Subsequently, on 12 April 2004, the FDA issued a final rule banning the sale of ephedra-containing dietary supplements.
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