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Ephedra

     The Ephedra Family, Ephedraceae, has but one genus, Ephedra. There are about 40 species world-wide; most species occur in north and south America. Some dozen or so species occur in the western United States, with three (Ephedra viridis, Ephedra cutleri, Ephedra torreyana) common in the Four Corners area. Ephedra viridis is the most common of these Ephedra in our area, but any one of the three species may be the dominant, or even the exclusive species in a given location.  

     Ephedra is a most unusual and thus easily remembered shrub and it is very common in semi-desert sand, rock, mesas, and canyons. Leaves are reduced to tiny dark scales; the number of leaves (and bracts) grouped together is key in identifying the various species: E. torreyana has leaves and bracts grouped in threes; E. cutleri and E. viridis have leaves and bracts in twos. Leaves are so tiny that they are incapable of supporting the plants through photosynthesis which, therefore, takes place in the green stem itself.

      Ephedra is a gymnosperm, that is, it does not have true flowers but instead produces spores in cone-like structures. It is thus a relative of the Pines, Junipers, and Spruces. The male and female cone-like structures may number from one to many at a node.

      The name "Ephedra" is from ancient times, dating back to Pliny's description of  Equisetum. Three thousand years before Pliny the Chinese realized that species of Ephedra had medicinal properties for treating respiratory ailments; we now know that Ephedra taken orally stimulates the body in a manner similar to injected adrenaline. Ephedra is now synthetically produced under the name of "ephedrine" and is one of the leading over-the-counter and prescription treatments for allergies, congestion, asthma, etc. The Four Corners species of Ephedra have little or no medicinal qualities. Western U.S. residents have, though, used the plant for many years in a brew from the stems: Mormon Tea. 

     Linnaeus named this genus in 1753.

Click for close-up photographs of each of the Ephedras shown on this page.

Ephedra cutleri (Mormon Tea)
Ephedraceae (Ephedra Family)

Semi-desert. Sandy flats.  Spring.
McElmo West of Bluff, Utah, March 31, 2007.

This Ephedra grows in dense colonies spreading from its roots. The plant is typically only about two feet tall, but it is often ten-fifteen feet in circumference with many other dense colonies nearby. E. cutleri is closely related to E. viridis (discussed at the bottom of this page) but it is shorter, usually more olive-green, and has viscid, not smooth, stems.

In 1939 Hugh Cutler (1912-1998) named this plant Ephedra coryi variety viscida from a collection he made in Arizona in the late 1930s, but in 1940 Robert  Peebles (1900-1956) renamed the plant Ephedra cutleri.  (More biographical information about Cutler.)

Click for close-up photographs of each of the Ephedras shown on this page.

Ephedra torreyana variety torreyana (Mormon Tea)
Ephedraceae (Ephedra Family)

Semi-desert, foothills. Canyons, woodlands, shrublands.  Spring.
Canyon of the Ancients National Monument, April 6, 2005.

E. torreyana is easily distinguished from E. cutleri and E. viridis by its lighter blue/gray/green color; its interlaced branches versus separate, vertical branches; and by the presence of three, not two, leaves whorled around each growth node.

"Torreyana" honors John Torrey, the foremost botanist of his time and the teacher and life-long friend and associate of Asa Gray. (More biographical information about Torrey.)

Click for close-up photographs of each of the Ephedras shown on this page.

Ephedra viridis (Mormon Tea)
Ephedraceae (Ephedra Family)

Semi-desert, foothills. Canyons, woodlands, shrublands.  Spring.
Negro Bill Canyon, Utah, April 13, 2005.

Ephedra viridis commonly grows three-to-five feet tall and wide; the Ephedra at left is typical. Vivid green, nearly vertical and parallel stems distinguish this species from E. torreyana and E. cutleri. This is the most common species of Ephedra in the Four Corners area and most people identify all species as E. viridis, but as the photographs on this page indicate, taking a closer look shows obvious differences.

"Viridis" is Latin for "green".

Click for close-up photographs of each of the Ephedras shown on this page.

Click for close-up photographs of each of the Ephedras shown on this page.

Range map © John Kartesz,
Floristic Synthesis of North America

State Color Key

Species present in state and native
Species present in state and exotic
Species not present in state

County Color Key

Species present and not rare
Species present and rare
Species extirpated (historic)
Species extinct
Species noxious
Species exotic and present
Native species, but adventive in state
Eradicated
Questionable presence

Range map for  Ephedra cutleri

Range map for Ephedra torreyana

Range map for Ephedra viridis

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