Ephedra – A Global Native Herb

Some of our native plants, like Ephedra, are found around the world. Everywhere that Ephedra occurs, Native peoples have found similar uses for it.

Prehistoric Plant

Ephedra is a fascinating plant that has been on earth since before plants had figured out how to make leaves, not to mention flowers. As a botanist I admire the plant for many technical reasons, and I won’t bore you with details but this unique plant was around LONG before dinosaurs roamed the earth. 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.

Plants were just figuring out how to make leaves when Ephedra and it’s cousins ruled this earth. These proto-leaves are about the best they could do.

Various species of ephedra are found around the world, and human use of the herb dates back at least 5000 years in China. As with many long used herbs, the common name and scientific name are the same, ephedra and Ephedra. In the Southwest, the plant is also commonly called Mormon tea or joint fir, without recognizing the seven different species found across the region.

Using Ephedra

Seven species of this prehistoric plant grow in the Pimería Alta. Natives would roast and eat the large “seeds” (technically a fleshy cone). These structures were also ground into meal. The leafless green stems are harvested for various medicinal uses, most commonly to treat colds and sinus congestion.  The O’odham names for ephedra are kobotk, kubgam, and kuupoh.  These names most likely apply to three different species of ephedra that grow on O’odham lands, but the names were recorded by non-botanists. Ideally, the information should be clarified.

Cones of Ephedra nevadensis. Photo courtesy of J. Decruyenaere.

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. Excessive use of ephedra can be a problem however, especially when extracted from the plant and condensed into pill form. 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 or broccoli can have consequences, but that is a story for another day.

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.

Herbal Tea

Ephedra makes a nice morning beverage, especially if you wish to avoid coffee or Chinese tea because of the unsustainable way these products are grown, harvested, and shipped. Simply make a tea or infusion. Place one heaping teaspoon of finely broken dried branches per cup and pour boiling water over them. Allow to infuse for three to five minutes then enjoy. A dollop of honey is nice, or use some desert lavender syrup that we made last week.  I find that one teaspoon of ephedra is enough for a brew similar to green tea in intensity of flavor.

One teaspoon doesn’t sound like much – but that’s about how much is in a standard tea bag.

Harvest Ephedra

Ephedra is easy to dry for later use, and makes a more palatable, less bitter, brew than fresh material. Ideally, harvest and dry stems in early spring before the plant begins it’s “bloom” cycle. This is when it is most potent. You will need to dry it further before storing. Snip the branches into half inch lengths and dry on a screen or in a terra cotta saucer for 3 to 5 days. As with most herbs, store out of direct sunlight and use dried material within one year.

Ephedra is available in local nurseries and can be a part of your sustainable yard. Photo courtesy of Mountain States Wholesale Nursery.

Ephedra Misuse

The following is excerpted and fully cited in Father Kinos Herbs:Growing & Using them Today.

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 “long overdue.” Given Hatch’s prior defense of the herb, Time magazine described his statement as “a dazzling display of hypocrisy.”

The pseudo-leaves darken upon drying and you can really see why the settlers called it “joint-fir.”

Government Regulation

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 supplements, and indicating its intention to ban the sale of them. Subsequently, on 12 April 2004, the FDA issued a final rule banning the sale of ephedra-containing dietary supplements.

Thanks for reading!



soule-savor-kinoMore using Ephedra in Father Kino’s Herbs: Growing and Using Them Today (Tierra del Sol Institute Press). This link is to Amazon and if you buy the book there the Horticulture Therapy non-profit Tierra del Sol Institute will get a few pennies at no additional cost to you.

© Article copyright Dr. Jacqueline A. Soule. All rights reserved. You must ask permission to republish an entire blog post or article. Okay to use a short excerpt but you must give proper credit. You must include a link back to the original post on our site. No stealing photos.

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