Is the dreaded flu breaks out in your house, there is a natural home remedy growing all over the desert. You’ll find it in botanical reference books between cypress and pines, but this scrubby native of our desert foothills is nothing like those big coniferous trees. Yet it is a conifer nonetheless, which gives Ephedra californica and its closely related species a unique place in the natural world. Also known as joint fir, this plant’s foliage is easy to spot due to its long, segmented needle-like leaves.
Our native Ephedra is related to, but not the same as Ephedra sinica, the Chinese native known as ma-huang, a stimulant antihistamine used there for centuries. California ephedra lacks the stimulant ephedrin, so it is not part of the pharmacopeia. However, it was in the Cahuilla materia medica, prepared as a medicinal tea. Barrows, a turn of the century ethnobotanist claims bundles of this stuff were “almost universally found tucked away among the thatching of every jacal, or packed away in basket and olla.” He also notes that the plant was harvested in the late summer and fall when considered the most potent.
This may indicate there are other components in this plant with antihistamine qualities that have yet to be discovered. According to one source, it’s prepared by boiling fresh or dried twigs in water until a “wine-colored” brew was achieved. However, among early tribal interviews it was never used long term, suggesting a potential for side effects when consumed in large quantities.
Another use for our ephedra was as a treatment for venereal diseases, and was named early on as Ephedra antisyphilitica. Other common names, teamster’s tea and Mormon tea, suggest this plant was in widespread use among settlers too. Ephedra tea was served in brothels throughout the west. One source claims its common name was the result of a frequent visitor to one house of ill repute named John Mormon, while other groups claim it was popular among Mormon settlers who did not drink caffeinated drinks.
Local ephedra plants have just begun the process of blooming. Remember, this is a true gymnosperm so its flowers are tiny cones. It is diecious, a Latin name for “two houses”, meaning that ovary and pollen are carried on different plants. On hikes early in the year you’ll notice the difference between male and female plants with very different looking reproductive structures.
Often ephedra is the only evergreen plant to make it through the dry season without defoliating.
This makes it a great choice for larger desert landscapes that are looking for shrubs that bear unique, fine textured foliage that won’t wither with extremes of heat or cold. The stems grow very thick and gnarled, and over time they may resemble an aged grapevine. When creatively pruned to reveal the most twisted parts of trunk and branches via “windows” through the foliage, you’ll better appreciate its growth habit.
The fine textured appearance of the foliage makes a great contrast against the large masses of cactus and agaves. They are natural companions in the wild with the Echinocereus, barrel cactus, cholla, desert agave, yucca and indigo bushes.
All share similar water and exposure requirements so they can be grouped separately from more water demanding plants.
In the wild ephedra is most often found on sloping rocky ground. They love alluvial fans with lots of sand and river rock. In the Indian Canyons it grows high above on waterless cliff faces where roots reach deep into moisture holding fishers. This underscores the drought tolerance of this rugged species.
No native medicinal garden would be complete without Ephedra californica or E. nevadensis. This keeps tea close at hand for treating colds with a fresh cut brew sweetened with honey, a known antibiotic. But don’t expect it to taste good as is, because what the Cahuilla considered “refreshing” is quite astringent to us.
Above all, when using this or any other plant related medicine, consume in moderate amounts. The top medical website, WebMD, warns not take prescription medications when drinking ephedra tea. They recommend waiting at least an hour after taking medication to have your tea. For those with allergies, be particularly careful with that first cup.
In flu years like this one, you can spend a lot of money on cures, but for those wishing to keep it more natural, or when financially challenged, try the Cahuilla method first. There is a good reason for stashing clippings in their homes for future use, and where wild plants are abundant, we can, too.