Ethnobotany of southern California native plants:

Ephedra (Ephedra californica)

ephedra californica

Ephedra californica in the winter

uses for ephedra

Bottles of ephedrine. Ephedrine is an alkaloid extract of the ephedra plant.

Ephedra (Ephedra californica)

Over 50 species of ephedra, or jointfir, can be found growing all around the world. One famous species, Ephedra sinica, is the source for the Chinese supplement Ma Huang. This ephedra extract has been a part of Traditional Chinese Medicine for over 2,000 years.

In fact, ephedra is one of the oldest plants to be used medicinally by early humans. In modern day Iraq, archaeologists have unearthed a 60,000 year old grave. This grave was originally dug and prepared by Neanderthals, or primitive humans. These Neanderthals had buried their friend with a collection of 8 different medicinal plants, one of which was ephedra.

Another species of ephedra grows in Utah. This plant, Ephedra viridis, is commonly known as Morman Tea. Early Morman settlers enjoyed drinking a tea brewed from the branches of their local ephedra plant. This tea acted as a mellow stimulant, which was convenient for the Mormans, since their religion prevented them from drinking coffee.

Ephedra plant extract

The Chinese and Mormans were indeed receiving a physiological effect from the ephedra plant. Ephedra contains various bioactive alkaloids, including ephedrine and pseudoephedrine. These compounds act as general stimulants; they stimulate the brain, constrict blood vessels, increase heart rate and metabolism and act as a bronchodilator.

Ephedrine side effects

In the last two decades, ephedra extracts containing these alkaloids became extremely popular as a herbal supplement. This supplement is advertised to be useful for a variety of reasons, including weight loss. However, due to some adverse reactions, the FDA has stepped in to limit the legality of ephedra supplements.

California ephedra

The species of ephedra growing in southern California and Baja is Ephedra californica, commonly referred to as desert tea or California ephedra. This is a small shrub, consisting of thin, greenish, twig-like branches. Ephedra generally only grows about 2-3 feet high.

California ephedra grows comfortably in coastal scrub, chaparral and the Sonoran and Mojave Deserts.

California ephedra plant benefits

Indigenous people of southern California used their local ephedra plant for various medicinal purposes.

The Kumeyaay prepared an infusion of ephedra branches as a means to purify their blood, curb their appetite and to cleanse their kidneys. The Kumeyaay also drank ephedra tea to soothe their stomach after they overate.

The Kawaiisu collected ephedra seeds for food and brewed the branches for a stimulating tea. The Kawaiisu were also fond of the charcoals that formed after burning ephedra. They used these charcoals to make decorative tattoos on their skin.

ephedra uses

credit: Climbjm CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

California ephedra plant, also known as desert tea and California joint fir.

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On our main ethnobotany page, we present a clickable list of the southern California native plants that became a part of the culture of Native Americans and early European settlers. These plants were used for medicine, food, shelter, drink, tools and art.


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