Mormon Tea (Ephedra species)
Main sources: Dimmit, Mark, "Ephedraceae (Ephedra family)", in Steven Phillips and Patricia Comus, eds., 2000, A Natural History of the Sonoran Desert, pp. 236-38, Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum Press, p. 224; and the UCMP Virtual Paleobotany Lab at Berkeley.
Ephedra, like the Horsetail (Equisetum) plant whose jointed stem structure its branches resemble, is a botanically important relic of a very distant geological past. In fact, there is current debate as to which evolutionary branch of the “Seed plants”, or Spermatophytes, its Family (the Gnetophytes) belongs -- whether the “Naked Seeds”, or Gymnosperms, including prominently the conifers, or the “Boxed Seeds” (Angiosperms, i.e. the flowering plants). Current opinion may favor the former, as a "joint fir", perhaps ancestral to conifers. Today it is one of only three remainders of what in ancient times was a much larger Family, having endured not just one mass extinction (the K-T boundary of 65 million years ago, which demolished some 70% of extant species) but two (the End of Permian 250 million years ago, when more than 90% of species disappeared). Well equipped for harsh environments, it is found today in both hemispheres, firmly adapted to both hot and cold as well as very dry. When we see it we should salute its status as long-term Gnetophyte survivor.
The Gnetophytes are joint-branched woody shrubs or vines. Each branch segment appears to sit atop the other -- see below. Ephedra-like pollens are first known from the Triassic period (246-208 mya), leading some botanists to infer that Ephedra "represents the basal group in gnetotype evolution", which would mean that this xerophytic plant has evolved more or less intact from that time. Like the other non-flowering seed plants, Gnetophytes were much more diverse during the Mesozoic era than they are today. Today only three genera remain -- one a moist-tropics type of vines, the second a bizarre, rare plant of the Namibian Desert in SW Africa, and the third are Ephedra species, distributed globally in arid lands, some 30 species, of which there are several in our area.
In our area, Ephedra shrubs grow from 2 to 5 feet tall and wide, and their thin, green stems have leaves that are very greatly reduced and spike-like. Look closely at the stems in the banner photo above, and also below. The jointed quality of the stems, which has led these types to be called "joint firs", may be examined more closely in this photo.
Click on the image to enlarge it.
Ephedra plants bloom in our area after good spring rains, as below in a tributary of lower Hot Springs Canyon in March of 2005.
The seeds are contained in papery cones which have flower-like qualities, reflecting their apparent marginality between Gymnosperms and Angiosperms. Their reproductive mechanisms also link them to the Angiosperms.
Below left, an ephedra flowering in March; right, a closeup of the cones/inflorescences showing their ambiguity.
Click on each image to enlarge it.
The stems contain ephedrine -- a bronchiodilator -- and pseudoephedrine -- a nasal decongestant. While currently available cold/allergy medications have been based on a Chinese species of Ephedra which contains much stronger concentrations of these drugs than our local plants (and which has been used by people in China for more than 4,000 years), stems from the Ephedra of our area were drunk in tea both by the O'odham and by Mormon settlers, hence the plant is known as “Mormon Tea” or "Squaw Tea.” Cattle will browse Ephedra, but only when other plants are unavailable, so when ranchers see it being browsed they know it's time to move the animals. It was the main plant found in the dung of the last known surviving southwestern ground sloths -- see Pleistocene Megafauna.
Mormon Tea is, like Creosotebush, very drought-resistant, but under conditions of severe drought it will lose its green color and become an almost flaming orange, as in this specimen (below), photographed at the climax of the drought of May 2002:
The green branches in the background are those of Palo Verde trees.