edible plants

Mormon Tea – a widely used medicinal plant

Mormon tea 1Mormon Tea (genus Ephedra) is a woody shrub that grows two to five feet high and wide. According to the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, “These are conifers more primitive than pine trees; they bear papery cones. (Their closest relative is the bizarre Welwitschia spp. of the Namib Desert, which looks like a beached green octopus but has the same cone structure as ephedra.) The various species are similar in general appearance; distinguishing among them requires close inspection.” There are about 40 species that occur in arid habitats in the northern hemisphere and South America. About six species occur in the Sonoran Desert region. Wikipedia shows a global distribution map for ephedra which includes a wide swath through Mediterranean Europe and south-central Asia. In some places in Mexico, such as the desert east of the Pinacate volcanic field, Ephedra plants reach 15 feet tall.

Ephedra has long been used medicinally, but there seems to be some controversy as to effectiveness and safety depending on species and source consulted. See this Fox News article.

Mormon Tea 2

ASDM notes: “The stems contain caffeine and ephedrine (a drug that acts like adrenalin/epinephrin). The closely related pseudoephedrine is now synthesized commercially and is an ingredient in commercial asthma and cold remedies, e.g., Sudafed®. Pseudoephedrine is also a precursor in the production of the dangerous illegal drug methamphetamine (“speed”). A tea with stimulant properties is made by steeping dried stems. It has been used medicinally to treat a variety of ailments including syphilis, diabetes, and pneumonia. A Chinese species is the source of ma huang, a tea so potent that it has caused deaths from overstimulation of the heart.”

DesertUSA describes several species: “This medium-sized shrub grows up to 4 feet high and appears to have no leaves. It looks like a thicket of numerous green, jointed, leafless branches with conspicuous nodes. It actually does have small, scale-like leaves and tiny flowers of male and female cones which bloom February through April. The fruit is a seed surrounded by 2 or 3 large scales. There are a number of species of Mormon Tea (Ephedra genus) growing in the southwestern deserts of the U.S., including E. trifurca, E. viridis, E. torreyana, E. nevadensis and E. californica. All have been used for a variety of medicinal purposes by various peoples over the centuries.”

WebMD notes: “Mormon tea is made from a plant, Ephedra nevadensis. The dried branches are boiled in water to make the tea. People use it as a beverage and as a medicine. Be careful not to confuse Mormon tea (Ephedra nevadensis) with ephedra (Ephedra sinica and other ephedra species). Unlike these other plants, Mormon tea does not contain ephedrine, an unsafe stimulant.

As a medicine, people take Mormon tea for sexually transmitted diseases such as syphilis and gonorrhea. It is also used for colds, kidney disorders, and as a ‘spring’ tonic.”

WebMD goes on to say: “The tannins in Mormon tea have a drying (astringent) effect and can reduce body secretions such as mucus. This might explain its use for colds. There isn’t enough information to know how Mormon tea might work for other uses such as kidney problems and sexually transmitted diseases. Mormon tea seems to be safe when consumed as a beverage in normal food amounts. But there isn’t enough information to know if Mormon tea is safe in medicinal amounts. Possible side effects include stomach complaints, kidney and liver damage, nose or throat cancer, increased urination, and constipation.”

See some good photos here and here.

Herb2000.com has an article specific to Ephedra nevadensis:

“From 1552 onwards, people have recommended taking Mormon tea as it is beneficial to our health. In effect, this herb and the tea brewed from it have been extensively used by frontiersmen to cure venereal or sexually transmitted diseases. In addition, Mormon tea has also been prescribed for treating conditions like colds and kidney problems as well as in the form of a ‘spring tonic’. Reputed herbal medicine physician David G. Spoerke has attributed the therapeutic actions of Mormon tea to an uncertain amount of alkaloid ephedrine enclosed by the herb. It may be noted here that this alkaloid ephedrine is a medication that facilitates the narrowing of the blood vessels, invigorating the central nervous system (CNS) as well as widening the bronchioles. On the other hand, Mowed, Gottlieb and Castleman have said that ephedrine is not the active constituent of Mormon tea – but its most active constituent is (+)-norpseudoephedrine, a much more strong stimulant for the central nervous system.”

The US Department of Agriculture has a good overview which includes a detailed description of the plants and their habitats. (see PDF file) USDA says that ephedrine, the pharmaceutically active compound found in the Old World species has not been detected in any North American species.

Here is the USDA description:

Ephedras are dioecious, with male and female cones occurring on separate plants. The cones are borne singly or in pairs or whorls at the branch nodes. The seeds are borne singly or in pairs in the axils of the female cone scales. The inner cone scales are modified to enclose the seed and form integuments that mimic the angiosperm pericarp. Flowering usually takes place in March through May, and seeds ripen from June through September, depending on elevation and species. The plants are wind-pollinated. Ephedra plants do not flower every year; their reproductive pattern could be described as mast fruiting, where most individuals in the population flower synchronously in a year with ample rainfall, and large quantities of seeds are produced. The population does not flower again for several years, whether or not a high-rainfall year occurs. The seedcrop may be damaged by late frosts, late spring drought, or infestations of pentatomid bugs.

The distribution of male and female ephedra plants is not random; individuals on dry slopes are over-represented by males, whereas those growing on run-on surfaces are 4 times as likely to be females as males. The genetic basis for sex differentiation in Ephedra is not known, but the spatial arrangement of males and females functions to maximize reproductive output, as it places males where their pollen can be easily wind-dispersed early in the season and females where they are more likely to have resources later in the season to ripen a seedcrop.

North American ephedra species fall into 2 groups characterized by differences in seed size and dispersal ecology. The large-seeded species (for example, green and Nevada Mormon-teas) are dispersed by scatter-hoarding rodents such as kangaroo rats, which deposit them in shallowly buried caches and later return to eat most of the seeds or sprouts. The cone scales in these species are small. In small-seeded species (for example, Torrey Mormon-tea) the outer cone scales are large and membranous, and the intact cones are often seen wind-rowed at some distance from adult plants. The seeds are apparently wind-dispersed, as they have long, awn-like points that probably make them unattractive to rodents. Cones with seeds intact may remain on the surface for many months.

Related articles:

Mesquite Trees Provide Food and a Pharmacy

Desert Willows provide emergency food and medicine

Devil’s Claw provides food, fiber and medicine

Chiltepin peppers, spice and medicine

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Desert Willows provide emergency food and medicine

Desert willows (Chilopsis linearis) are trees that grow up to about 30 feet high. They range from southern California and Nevada, through Arizona and New Mexico to west Texas and northern Mexico. The primary habitat is low desert to grasslands.

Desert willows are not really willows, they are in the bignonia family. However, their long slender leaves and drooping branches give them an appearance similar to willows.

Desert willow flowers

Desert willow

With sufficient rainfall, these trees bloom from mid-spring through mid-summer. The large, trumpet-shaped flowers are white in the western part of the willow’s range, but become progressively purple with yellow nectar guides in the eastern part of the range. Large bees are the main pollinators, but the flowers also attract other insects and hummingbirds.

The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum (ASDM) notes that desert willows are one of the few trees in the northern part of the Sonoran Desert that is not in the legume family. Desert willows do, however, produce seed pods 4 to 12 inches long which mature in Autumn. Then the brown pods split in two and release many flat seeds that have dual hair wings. See seed pods here. The pods themselves often stay on the tree until the next spring.

Use as food:

ASDM says the bitter inner bark may be eaten raw as an emergency food. It tastes better when dried and ground to flour. The USDA says that the flower blossoms and seed pods were used for food also.

Medicinal use:

ASDM notes: “The Pima and Tarahumara make a decoction of the leaves and bark that they drink for fever.” Willow bark is an astringent and good as a gargle for sore throats. It has been used for hay fever, colds and as an expectorant. “Willow tea is used to treat heartburn, stomach problems, diarrhea, cramps, bladder infections and dandruff.”

USDA notes: The flowers, leaves, and bark of desert willow were used in hot poultices and to make a soothing tea for coughs. A tea concocted from the flowers produces a natural anti-oxidant which promotes cardiovascular health and regulates glucose metabolism. It was also used in preparations to guard against yeast infections, athlete’s foot and as a first aid for scrapes and scratches.

Other uses:

USDA says that “The bark was used to make fabrics for shirts and breechclouts, and fashioned into cordage to make nets. Branches were stripped of their bark and used as rod foundations for coil basketry. The wood was used in building house frames, granaries and fence posts.”

USFS notes that “Unlike the weak wood of true willows, the wood of Desert-Willow was used by Indians to craft their hunting bows.”

According to Arid Zone Trees: “The Arizona Department of Water Resources recommends desert willow as a low water use/drought-tolerant tree. Keep in mind though, that monthly irrigation during the summer months maximizes the desert willow’s ornamental value. Moderate water use is beneficial, but not critical for survival of the tree. Desert willow is no wimp. It is hardy to minus 10 degrees Fahrenheit, has deep roots that extend 50’+, waxy leaves that effectively retain moisture, and is highly responsive to cold and drought. The first hard frost will disrobe the entire tree. Have no fear because fresh leaves ‘spring-out’ during March through May.”

See the ARTICLE INDEX for more stories of the Sonoran Desert.