For an unusual herb in your landscape, why not try a unique desert-adapted 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. Human history with this herb is also extensive, well over 5000 years. As with many long used herbs, the common name and scientific name are the same, Ephedra. In the Southwest, ephedra is also known as Mormon tea or joint fir.
The ephedra around Tucson, 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 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. Keep evenly moist for three months and you should see results.
If you wish to avoid coffee or Chinese tea because of the very “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. Harvest and dry your own ephedra in early spring. Just remember that moderation is key. Another use is to finely grind ephedra twigs and use in an exfoliating skin wash. The plant is relatively high in silica, a compound used to make glass.
The active compounds in ephedra include ephedrine, pseudoephedrine, and phenylpropanolamine. These compounds are used today in clinical settings, including in local anesthetics and surgical vasoconstrictors. A number of drugs contain pseudoephedrine, including flu, allergy and cold remedies. You have to sign for these drugs now because pseudoephedrine can be converted into methamphetamine. In the last days of World War II, many of the Japanese Kamikaze pilots were given injections of a highly refined and potent ephedra extract just prior to their final flights. The excessive dose mimicked the effects of methamphetamine, including, in some cases, death by stroke or heart attack.
Known locally as Mormon tea, ephedra has long been used as a morning “pick me up” by Mormons and gentiles alike who wish to avoid caffeine. In The Consumer’s Guide to Herbal Medicine (1999), Steven B. Karch, M.D., evaluates Ephedra along with 67 other medicinal herbs. He mentions that ephedra is used to treat asthma, bronchospasm, and colds. “. . . [ephedra affects] . . . the heart and lungs, causing bronchial dilation, and the blood vessels in the nose to shrink. [It] also exerts influence on the central nervous system. In very large doses, five to ten times the amounts found in most food supplements, ephedrine produces effects very much like methamphetamine. Ephedrine, like methamphetamine, [can affect] the heart and blood vessels, leading to stroke and heart attacks.”
Note: the information in this article is for your reference, and is not intended to be used as a substitute for qualified medical attention.
Jacqueline Soule has a number of lectures on native herbs this spring at various Pima County Public Library locations. Ask at your local library or check the events listing on the library website (http://www.library.pima.gov/calendar/). As well as writing and speaking about plants, Jacqueline works as a garden coach – making house calls to help you with your plants or landscape design. More information at http://www.gardeningwithsoule.com/
Post Script. (P.S.): for the stamp-lovers out there, here is ephedra celebrated on a stamp from Moldavia.