Family: Gnetaceae Genus Ephedra
Common names: Mormon Tea, Brigham Tea, Cowboy Tea,
Whorehouse Tea, Squaw Tea, Canyon Tea
Indian names: Tuttumpin (Paiute), Tutupivi (Kawaiisu)
Distribution: All of the southwestern United States and
Mexico. Found in deserts and on dry mountain sides.
Description: a branched broomlike shrub growing up to 4 feet
tall, with slender, jointed stems. The leaves are reduced to scales and grow in opposite
pairs or whorls of three and are fused for half their length. Male and female flowers,
blooming in March and April, are borne on separate plants in conelike structures. They are
followed by small brown to black seeds.
The Indians prepared Ephedra as a tea for stomach and bowel disorders, for
colds, fever, and headache. The dried and powdered twigs were used in poultices for burns
and ointments for sores. One tribe made a decoction of the entire plant and drank it to
help stop bleeding.
Early Mormon settlers, who abstained from regular tea and coffee, drank
the beverage made from this plant. A handful of green or dry stems and leaves were placed
in boiling water for each cup of tea desired. It was removed from the fire and allowed to
steep for twenty minutes or more. To bring out the full flavor, a spoon of sugar or some
strawberry jam was added depending on individual taste.
Other white settlers used a very strong tea of the plant for the treatment of
syphilis and other venereal disease, and as a tonic. It was standard fare in the waiting
rooms of whorehouses in early Nevada and California. It was said to have been introduced
by a Jack Mormon who frequented Katies Place in Elko, Nevada during the mining rush
of the last century.
Although not as potent as the commercial relatives in China and India, the
southwestern species contains enough ephedrine-related alkaloid ingredients to make it
functional. The drug ephedrine is a stimulant to the sympathetic nerves and has an effect
on the body similar to adrenaline. It has a pronounced diuretic and decongestant effect
and was used wherever urinary tract problems occurred.
The dark brown resinous scales contain at least a third tannin and made an
excellent external hemostatic.
The small, hard, brown seeds were ground and used as a bitter meal or added
to bread dough to flavor it.