Recently, a strange coincidence put the eerie notes of The Twilight Zone’s theme music playing in my head. A friend had just texted me a photo of an extra-large specimen of a brush country plant. She exclaimed “Look how big this shrub is! It is like a tree.” I asked “Is that an Ephedra or do you call it Mormon Tea?” She replied “Yes, it grows pretty big here in the brush of west Bee County.” Moments later, out of the blue, my daughter sent me a YouTube video. It was of a Nevada naturalist harvesting and making Mormon Tea. That’s when I heard the theme music…
Barring some psychic connection, these two unrelated texts surprised me. But they also got me to thinking about Ephedra. I didn’t know it grew to be treelike in the western part of this county. In fact, I didn’t know it grew here at all! It is not a component of the brush on our farm. Still, as you go further west from Beeville, the climate and soils change, and different species began to show up. Obviously, Ephedra is one of them.
Mormon Tea is the common name for several species in the genus Ephedra. Two species, E. pedunculata and E. antisyphilitica, are said to occur in the western two-thirds of the state of Texas. Examining the stems and the tiny, dry and membranous leaves at the joints, I concluded that the one we have here is E. antisyphilitica. However, to be sure, I need to see the flowers and cones.
That’s right: cones. Ephedra is a gymnosperm, a cone-bearing flowering plant. Like pine trees, cypresses and firs, Ephedra produces seeds inside of cones, not fruits or pods. In fact, another common name for this plant is “joint-fir”, and if you look at the way the green pine-needle-like stems grow, you’d agree that this is a good name.
So, why do we call it “Mormon Tea?” This is because several species of Ephedra grow in the high desert and mountains of the western United States where the Mormons settled. These early settlers discovered that the indigenous peoples made a tasty and slightly stimulating tea out of the crumpled stems. In his Remarkable Plants of Texas (2009) Matt Warnock Turner writes “Early Mormon settlers, for whom alcohol, coffee and tea were proscribed, found they could imbibe the mildly stimulating Ephedra teas without violating the letter (although perhaps the spirit) of their law. As tradition would have it, their liberal use of the drink led to the name most commonly applied to the genus (and many species).”
Southwestern indigenous peoples used the tea to treat numerous illnesses. One of the medicinal uses was to relieve the symptoms of colds, hay fever, asthma and coughs. Ephedra does contain a small amount of a substance that acts as a bronchial dilator so it probably did work for this purpose. However, “by far the most frequently mentioned medicinal application for species of the American Southwest is for urinary and kidney disorders.” Mormon Tea, which is also called kidney tea, is a well-known diuretic which promotes urination. For this reason, many native tribes, and ultimately frontiersmen, pioneers and especially teamsters moving draft animals through the southwest, drank the tea to relieve urinary problems. Ephedra antisyphilitica, as the name suggests, was used extensively to treat syphilis. Teamsters, who believed they had contracted or might contract venereal diseases from the locals, would carry a supply of Mormon Tea with them, just in case. Thus Mormon Tea became widely known as Teamsters’ Tea. Unfortunately for them, Ephedra teas could not cure syphilis; only antibiotics can do that.
In Asia, Ephedra sinica is the source of ephedrine. It is the principal active ingredient in “ma-huang,” a traditional Chinese medicine. For more than 5,000 years, Asians used ma-huang to treat nasal colds, asthma and joint pains. In this country, it has been used more as a performance enhancer, stimulant and appetite suppressant. Rising reports of heart attacks, strokes and seizures due to ingestion of ma-huang has led to the FDA banning the use of Ephedra in dietary supplements. It should be noted that North American Ephedra species contain only minute amounts of ephedrine.
Besides the many medicinal uses, Mormon Tea is a pleasant-tasting herbal tea that can be enjoyed for its own sake. I gathered some of the slender green stems from the plants on the Thornton ranch in west Bee County. I cut them into two-inch-long sticks and simmered them for about 15 minutes. The resulting tea was pale green and had a mild herbal flavor. Chad Zuber in the YouTube video described the taste as “nutty.” Actually, it tasted rather vegetable-y to me. I think the taste was more like that of water in which green beans have been boiled. However, it was not unpalatable, and I suspect it would “grow on you.” I did not notice any stimulant effect, but as they say it is only a mild stimulant, possibly due to the tannins in the plant.
If you are curious about this historically interesting plant, you do not have to go to Utah to find it. Right here in our county and in areas further west into the Edwards Plateau and Rio Grande Plains of Texas, you can find it growing. It blooms in February, producing odd flowers that are not like those of angiosperms but not quite like gymnosperm’s cones either. I am looking forward to examining Ephedra flower-cones this next spring. Who knew that Mormon Tea grew here?