Ephedraceae (Ephedra Family); Monospermae Section
Forms and Subspecies
The following varieties are currently accepted:
Ephedra gerardiana Wall. var. gerardiana
Ephedra gerardiana Wall. var. saxatilis—tsafad
Ephedra gerardiana Wall. var. sikkimensis Stapf
Ephedra saxatilis Royle var. sikkimensis (Stapf) Flories
Ephedra vulgaris Rich.
Amsania, asmânia, asmani-booti, budagur, bûdsûr, bûtsûr, chefrat, cheldumb, chewa, ehewa, khanda, khanda-phog, khanna, ma houng (Tibetan), ma-huang (Chinese), mtshe (Tibetan), narom (Pakistani), oman (Pashto), phok, raci, sang kaba (Sherpa, “kaba incense”), sikkim ephedra, soma, somalata (Sanskrit, “moon plant”), somlata (Nepali), thayon (Ladakhi), tootagantha (Hindi), trano, tsafad, tsapatt-tsems, tse, tseh (Tamang), tutgantha (Hindi), uman (Pashto), uroman
This plant must already have been known in the Vedic or post-Vedic period, for it was used as a soma substitute (cf. also haoma). It was botanically described in the eighteenth century. The species name refers to John Gerard, the English herbal author, who published one of the earliest precise descriptions and illustrations of Ephedra under the name Vua marina (Gerard 1633, 1117).
The species is found in the Himalayas (from Afghanistan to Bhutan) in altitudes between 2,400 and 5,600 meters (Navchoo and Buth 1989, 143*). It prefers drier Alpine regions and high mountain deserts (with less than 50 cm of precipitation annually). In Nepal, somalata is common in Langtang and the Mustang district. In Sikkim, the variety sikkimensis is most common.
In Nepal, this high mountain Ephedra species is most frequently encountered at altitudes between 3,000 and 4,000 meters, often in association with Juniperus recurva and Rhododendron spp. (Malla 1976, 34). In the high mountains, Ephedra herbage is an important source of nourishment for yaks and goats during the winter (Polunin and Stainton 1985, 384). It is likely that these animals also eat the plant as a stimulant.
In Nepal, Ephedra gerardiana, which thrives in the high mountain regions of the Himalayas, is still known by the name somalata, “soma/moon plant.” (Photographed at approximately 4,000 meters above sea level near Muktinath, Nepal)
The subspecies Ephedra gerardiana var. sikkimensis is prevalent in Sikkim.
“Today Ephedra is the vehicle of Ephedrine. Formerly it was the carrier of a large but fixed quantum of soul.”
INDIAN ALCHEMY OR RASAYANA (1991, 100)
The plant can be grown from seed. It requires a humus-poor, rocky soil; it can survive with very little water and is able to grow in very dry locations. This robust plant even thrives in soils that contain salt, such as in the neighborhood of salt lakes (Hemsley and Rockhill 1973, 18).
Somalata is a perennial herbaceous plant that has practically no leaves and consists solely of fibrous, segmented stalks (in older specimens, some fifteen segments). The small and inconspicuous yellow flowers grow directly from the stalks at the segments. The small, round red fruits (6 mm in diameter) ripen in autumn (August to September). The fruits are edible. The herbage typically does not grow taller than 20 cm, although it can attain an overall height of 60 cm (Morton 1977, 33*).
As with all other species of Ephedra, this species is very easily confused with its relatives.
—Dried stalks; these are collected during the monsoon season (July) when they are flowering, as the alkaloid content is greatest then (Manandhar 1980, 35*).
Preparation and Dosage
The dried herbage (stalks) is boiled in water for approximately ten minutes. Six grams of dried herbage is regarded as a medicinally efficacious individual dosage. Dosages as high as 20 g may be used for euphoriant purposes.
In the Himalayas, ashes of the plant are said to be used as snuff (von Reis and Lipp 1982, 6*).
In the post-Vedic period, when the Aryans were no longer able to find the original psychedelic soma plant in the Indus Valley and the knowledge of the plant was being kept secret or lost, the sacred soma drink (which corresponds to the Persian haoma) was prepared with substitute plants, which included Ephedra sp. (cf. soma). It is for this reason that this Himalayan Ephedra species is still known by the name somalata,“plant of the moon” (Singh et al. 1979, 189*). While the effects of the plant are stimulating, they are not visionary. The closely related and very similar or synonymous Himalayan species Ephedra saxatilis Stapf is also known as somalata.
In contrast to the Tibetans, the Nepali Tamang cremate their dead. The cremations are carried out on small chortens (Lamaist shrines) that are erected outside of the villages specifically for this purpose. Dried bundles of Ephedraherbage are used as incense during the cremation ceremonies. The smoke has a surprisingly pleasant, fine, slightly spicy fragrance somewhat reminiscent of the scent of a forest fire.
A Pakistani Gandhara sculpture (first to sixth century C.E.) in the Archaeological Museum of Peshawar (India) depicts the Buddha as an herbalist. Farmers are shown offering him bundles of stalks which Mahdihassan (1963 and 1991) has interpreted as those of Ephedra gerardiana.
In Ayurvedic medicine, an Ephedra tea (6 g per dosage) is used to treat colds, coughs, wheezing, bronchitis, asthma, arthritis, and dropsy. To avoid undesirable side effects (such as tachycardia), licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra L.) can be added to the Ephedra tea.
In Nepali folk medicine, the herbage is used as a tonic for asthma, hay fever, and diseases of the respiratory tract (Manandhar 1980, 35*; Singh et al. 1979, 189*). In Tibetan medicine, Ephedra is regarded as a rejuvenant. In Ladakh, the powdered plant is ingested along with water as an expectorant and to treat “blood diseases” (Navchoo and Buth 1989, 144*).
The herbage contains 0.8 to 1.4% alkaloids, of which 50% is ephedrine and 50% is composed of other alkaloids, such as pseudoephedrine (Manandhar 1980, 35*; Morton 1977, 34*). Bitter and tanning agents are also present. Fertilizing the plant with amino acids increases the biosynthesis of ephedrine (Ramawat and Arya 1979).
A decoction of Ephedra gerardiana elevates blood pressure; constricts blood vessels; has diuretic, stimulating (natural stimulant), and euphoriant effects; and causes allergic symptoms (hay fever, asthma) to disappear. The effects last six to eight hours.
Commercial Forms and Regulations
Herbage of Ephedra gerardiana that is sold outside of the Himalayan region is subject to the same regulations as other Ephedra species (see Ephedra sinica).
Woodcut of a large Ephedra species, from the herbal of John Gerard (1633)
See also the entries for Ephedra sinica, Ephedra spp., and ephedrine.
Hemsley, W. Botting, and W. Woodville Rockhill. 1973. Two small collections of dried plants from Tibet. New Delhi: Pama Primlane (The Chronica Botanica).
Mahdihassan, S. 1963. Identifying soma as ephedra. Pakistan Journal of Forestry (October):370ff.
———. 1991. Indian alchemy or rasayana. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publ.
Quazilbash, N. N. 1948. Some observations on Indian ephedra. Quarterly Journal of Pharmacy and Pharmacology 21:502ff.
Ramawat, Kishan Gopal, and Harish Chandra Arya. 1979. Effect of amino acids on ephedrine production in Ephedra gerardiana callus culture. Phytochemistry 18:484–85.
Rätsch, Christian. 1995. Mahuang, die Pflanze des Mondes. Dao 4/95:68.
Stein, Sir A. 1932. On ephedra, the hum plant and soma. Btn. School of Oriental Studies London Institution 6:501ff.
Ephedraceae (Ephedra Family); Ephedra Section
Forms and Subspecies
Ask-for-trouble,128 Chinese ephedra, Chinese joint fir, chinesisches meerträubel, mahuang, ma-huang, máhuáng, ts’ao ma-huang
Ma-huang is one of the oldest known medicinal plants of China. It has been estimated that its medicinal use may date back six thousand years (Bremness 1995, 102*; Morton 1977, 35*). Mahuang was first mentioned in the herbal text of the legendary Shen Nung, and it has occupied a firm place in the Chinese materia medica since that time. There are several ma-huang species in China that are used for medicinal purposes, but the most important of these is Ephedra sinica. China was the primary source of ephedrae herbae until 1925 (Morton 1977, 35*).
Ephedra sinica is found in northern China from Xinjiang Uygur to Hebei Province and into Outer Mongolia. It is found only at an altitude of about 1,500 meters (Morton 1977, 33*) and chiefly on steep slopes in semiarid regions (Bremness 1995, 102*).
The other Ephedra species are clearly isolated geographically. Ephedra shennungiana is found only in Fujian (Zander 1994, 256*). Ephedra equisetina grows only at altitudes between 1,220 and 1,700 meters in Inner Mongolia (Morton 1977, 33*). Recently, it has been suggested that E. shennungiana is a synonym for E. equisetina (Hiller 1993, 48). Ephedra intermedia is found from Inner Mongolia to Pakistan, but it thrives only in lower altitudes.
The typical red fruits of mahuang, or Chinese ephedra (Ephedra sinica)
The herbage of Ephedra sinica, also known as ma-huang, as sold on the international herb market
Cultivation occurs via seeds that are sown in light, sandy soil in the spring. The plant can also be propagated using pieces of the rootstock (Morton 1977, 34*). The seeds germinate best when they are extracted by hand from ripe fruits still attached to the stalks. The plant requires a dry, warm climate.
Species of Ephedra are also cultivated in Australia, Kenya, the United States (South Dakota), and England (Morton 1977, 33*).
This perennial horsetail-type plant, which can grow as tall as 75 cm, develops leafless, segmented canes that are round in cross-section. The male flowers resemble catkins. The red fruits contain several black seeds and are attached to short stalks that develop from the stem segments. The fruits develop in late autumn.
The species sinica is almost impossible to distinguish from other Ephedra species on the basis of its external appearance. The most reliable method of identification is to consider the geographical distribution, the altitude (see under “Distribution”), and the height the plant can attain: E. sinica grows to between 45 and 75 cm in height, E. equisetina to between 60 and 180 cm, and E. intermedia only to 30 to 60 cm (Morton 1977, 33*).
Ma-huang species are easily confused with the species Ephedra gerardiana, Ephedra likiangensis Florin, Ephedra przewalskii Stapf, and Ephedra distachya L. (the raw drug can be counterfeited with these species) (Paulus and Ding 1987, 124*).
—Ma-huang: dried stems (ephedrae herba, herba ephedra)
Ephedrae herba is derived primarily from Ephedra sinica but is also available as a mixture of various species. The quality of the commercial drug can vary substantially (Liu et al. 1993, 377).
—Ma-huang gen: dried roots (radix ephedrae)
Dried roots should be stored away from light (Hiller 1993, 52).
Preparation and Dosage
A tea (made with 1 heaping teaspoon of Ephedra herbage boiled in 1/4 liter of water for five to ten minutes) can alleviate hay fever, bronchitis, asthma, or asthmatic complaints very well. The fresh or dried herbage can also be added to heavy wine or brandy. The astringent taste can be improved by the addition of cardamom, anise, and fennel. The daily dosage of ma-huang herbage is listed as 1.5 to 9 g by itself or in combination preparations (as a tea); the daily dosage of the root ranges from 3 to 9 g (Paulus and Ding 1987, 123*).
The Chinese preparation mimahuang is obtained from the chopped raw herbage and honey (10:2). The stems are roasted until the honey has been absorbed and they are no longer sticky (Hiller 1993, 53).
Because traditional Chinese medicine is rooted in shamanism (Schneider 1993) and the use of mahuang certainly dates back at least five thousand years, it can be assumed that northern Chinese and Mongolian shamans used Ephedrafor magical, medicinal, and ritual purposes. Unfortunately, we have not yet found any sources that can confirm this assumption. It is interesting that Ephedra’s name (ma-huang) places it in the same taxonomic category (ma) as Cannabis sativa (ma-fen). This may be due to the fact that both plants produce euphoriant and stimulating effects and would thus have been very useful to shamans.
Because ma-huang continues to be used as an ingredient in tonics and vitalizing aphrodisiacs, it can also be assumed that Taoist alchemists utilized the plant in their quest for long life and immortality and in their magical sexual rites.
Ephedra intermedia, the middle ephedra, is also a source of mahuang.
In Asia, the species Ephedra equisetina is also known as mahuang and is used in the same manner as Ephedra sinica.
Asian Ephedra Species That Provide the Chinese Drug Ma-huang
(From Liu et al. 1993; Morton 1977, 33ff.*; Paulus and Ding 1987, 123*; Schneider 1974, 2:54*)
In traditional Chinese medicine, ma-huang has been used with success to treat asthma for more than five thousand years (Wee and Keng 1992, 77*). Generally, both the stems and the roots are used to treat diseases of the lungs and bladder. The stems are used especially in the treatment of fever, colds, headaches, bronchial asthma, and hay fever, while the root is administered for excessive perspiration (Paulus and Ding 1987, 123*).
Air-dried herbage contains 1 to 2.5% alkaloids (sometimes as much as 3.3%!), primarily l-ephedrine, d-pseudoephedrine, and l-norephedrine. Also present are the analogs norpseudoephedrine, methylephedrine, and methylpseudoephedrine. The alkaloid content is greatest in material collected in autumn. Analyses of different commercial ma-huang preparations from Taiwan have shown that the herbage of Ephedra sinica consistently exhibited the highest alkaloid content (approximately 1.1 to 2.1%), followed by Ephedra equisetina. Ephedra intermedia had the lowest amounts (0.8 to 1.5%) (Liu et al. 1993). The roots and fruits are almost completely devoid of alkaloids (Hiller 1993; Morton 1977, 34*).
Ephedroxane, an anti-inflammatory principle, was also discovered in ma-huang drugs (Konno et al. 1979). In addition to the alkaloids, which should be regarded as the primary active constituents, there are tanning agents, saponines, flavonoids (vicenine, lucenine, etc.), an essential oil, and dextrose (Paulus and Ding 1987, 124*).
Ephedra herbage has an arousing effect on the central nervous system that is similar to that of ephedrine: It stimulates, awakens, accelerates the pulse, and constricts the blood vessels. Extracts of the entire plant effect vasoconstriction, stimulate circulation, elevate blood pressure, arouse the central nervous system, are strongly diuretic, suppress the appetite, alleviate bronchial spasms, and relieve the symptoms of hay fever (for at least eight hours).
Both Ephedra extracts and ephedrine hydro-chloride are regarded as excellent aphrodisiacs, especially for women. Because of the potent vasoconstrictive effects, high dosages of Ephedra can produce temporary impotence in men in spite of erotic arousal!
People with elevated blood pressure and heart problems should avoid using Ephedra. The drug should not be used when heart arrhythmia or high blood pressure is present (Paulus and Ding 1987, 123*).
MAO inhibitors (Peganum harmala, harmaline and harmine) can potentiate the effects of Ephedra preparations considerably (Hiller 1993, 53).
Commercial Forms and Regulations
According to the DAB10, ma-huang is officinal under the name ephedrae herba (ephedra herbage). A tincture, Tinctura Ephedrae EB6, is prepared from powdered Ephedra herbage and diluted ethyl alcohol (1:5). The pharmacopoeia of Chinese medicine states that the alkaloid content may not be less than 0.8% (Hiller 1993, 51).
In Germany, Ephedra herbage and especially preparations made with it are available only with a prescription. The International Olympic Committee and the German Sport Federation have included medicaments containing ephedrine in their lists of doping agents as prohibited stimulants (Hiller 1993, 54).
In the United States, both the herbage and herbal tablets and tinctures were available without restriction prior to 2004, but an FDA ban on supplements containing Ephedra went into effect on April 12, 2004 (cf. Hirschhorn 1982).
“The roots of Chinese medicine lie in the shamanic tradition of the Shang and Zhou periods (between the sixteenth and first centuries B.C.E.), a tradition associated with magic and geomancy that is now regarded as superstition. During the course of time, and stimulated by the rational orientation of the state philosophy of Confucianism, this increasingly crystallized into the rational and empirical beginnings of a prescientific medicine.”
DER KLASSIKER DES GELBEN KAISERS ZUR INNEREN MEDIZIN [THE CLASSIC OF THE YELLOW EMPEROR ON INTERNAL MEDICINE]
Both of these ma-huang preparations (the herbage and the root) are used in traditional Chinese medicine. (Ancient Chinese illustration)
See also the entries for Ephedra gerardiana, Ephedra spp., and ephedrine.
Hiller, Karl. 1993. Ephedra. In Hagers Handbuch der pharmazeutischen Praxis, 5th ed., 2:46–57. Berlin: Springer.
Hirschhorn, Howard H. 1982. Natural substances in currently available Chinese herbal and patent medicines. Journal of Ethnopharmacology 6 (1): 109–19.
Hu, Shiu-Ying. 1969. Ephedra (ma-huang) in the new Chinese materia medica. Economic Botany 23:346–51.
Konno, Chohachi, Takashi Taguchi, Mitsuru Tamada, and Hiroshi Hikino. 1979. Ephedroxane, anti-inflammatory principle of Ephedra herbs. Phytochemistry 18:697–98.
Liu, Ying-Mei, Shuenn-Jyi Sheu, Shiow-Hua Chiou, Hsien-Chang Chang, and Yuh-Pan Chen. 1993. A comparative study on commercial samples of ephedrae herba. Planta Medica 59:376–78.
Rätsch, Christian. 1995. Mahuang, die Pflanze des Mondes. Dao 4/95:68.
Schmidt, Wolfgang G. A. 1993. Der Klassiker des Gelben Kaisers zur Inneren Medizin: Das Grundbuch chinesischen Heilwissens. Freiburg: Herder.
Ephedraceae (Ephedra Family)
Ephedra, ephedrakraut, joint fir, meerträubchen, meerträubel, meerträubelarten, meerträubl, uva maritima
Ephedra species occur primarily in Eurasia and the Americas. Some three species are found in the Himalayan region (see Ephedra gerardiana). There are also several species in China and central Asia (see Ephedra sinica). Ephedra species also grow in Europe, chiefly in the eastern Mediterranean region (Greece, Turkey, Cyprus). These Ephedra bushes can be mistaken for an Ephedra-like broom (Genista ephedroides DC.) that is found throughout the Mediterranean.
There is some confusion regarding the taxonomy and nomenclature of the genus Ephedra. While as many as seventy-seven species were once described and accepted (Stapf 1889), a revision of the genus has resulted in only some forty-four well-defined species. Questions regarding synonyms, subspecies, and varieties continue to produce considerable confusion in the literature (cf. Zander 1994, 225f.*).
Ephedra is one of the oldest plants used by humans. The Neanderthals of Shanidar (modern Iraq) used the plant for ritual and apparently medicinal purposes. Plant remains (pollen) have been recovered from the caves of Shanidar, a Neanderthal burial site dating to approximately 30,000 B.P. (Solecki 1975). Ephedra herbage and other bioactive flowers (Senecio spp., Achillea sp., Centaurea solstitialis L., Muscarispp.) were placed with the deceased for his last journey. The species has been identified as Ephedra altissima Desf. (= E. distachya type, E. fragilis type) (Leroi-Gourhan 1975; Lietava 1992). But it is possible that it may in fact have been a different species, such as Ephedra alataDecne., Ephedra foliata Bois. et Kotschy, or Ephedra fragilis ssp. campylopoda (Solecki 1975, 881).
During archaeological excavations in the southeast of the Kara-kum Desert (Turkmenistan), a three-thousand-year-old temple site that looked exactly like a pre-Zoroastrian shrine was uncovered from under enormous walls of sand. Large clay vessels and basins in which great quantities of a presumably fermented ritual drink were obviously prepared were found on the well-preserved fire altar. Some of the remains of the brewing were able to be identified, with astonishing results: Drinks containing Ephedra were being brewed at the site. This temple may have been the home of Zoroaster (= Zarathustra), the founder of the religion that now bears his name. This find suggests that Ephedra was an ingredient in the inebriating haoma drink. Remains of Papaver somniferum were also found on associated objects (pestles, etc.) (Sarianidi 1988). Today, Ephedra species are still known as hum, huma, and yahma in the Harirud Valley (Baluchistan). The name appears to preserve a certain reminder of the ancient fire cult.
Constituents and Effects
Almost all Ephedra species contain the amphetamine-like ephedrine as well as the related alkaloids pseudoephedrine and norephedrine, along with tanning agents, saponines, flavonoids, and an essential oil. The Mediterranean species exhibit their highest concentrations of alkaloids in August, which is why they should be collected at that time. Ephedra major contains 0.69% alkaloids, E. distachya 0.35%, and E. campylopoda only 0.14% (Tanker et al. 1992). Extracts of the entire plant for all the species mentioned have the same effects as Ephedra gerardiana or Ephedra sinica.
Woodcut of a small Ephedra species from the herbal of John Gerard (1633)
The winged ephedra (Ephedra alata), common in North Africa and southwest Asia, was already being used for ritual purposes during the Stone Age.
Ephedra andina, known in the Andes as pingo-pingo, is devoid of ephedrine.
Ephedra Species with the Greatest Ethnobotanical Significance
Species with ethnobotanical and ethnopharmacological significance are found primarily in South America and Asia. The most important of these are discussed below.
Ephedra americana Humb. et Bonpl. ex Willd.—pinku-pinku
Known as pinku pinku, naranja naranja (“orange”), and refresco (“refresher”), this shrub is found from Ecuador to Argentina and also occurs in the high mountains. In Peru, a tea prepared from the plant is drunk as a tonic (Franquemont et al. 1990, 40*). The related but more prostrate-growing species Ephedra rupestris Benth. is known in Quechuan as pampa pinku pinku, and it is drunk as a tea for lung ailments (Franquemont et al. 1990, 40 f.*).
Ephedra andina Poepp. ex C.A. Mey. [syn. Ephedra americana var. andina Stapf]—pingopingo
This South American bush is called pingo-pingo (literally, “tubes”) and is also known as canotu (“joint” or “hashish cigarette”), solupe, and transmontaga. In Chilean folklore, this plant is a symbol for “he-men” and heartbreakers—perhaps because of its purported aphrodisiac effects. The plant is used in (folk) medicine to treat bronchitis, asthma, and whooping cough (Mösbach 1992, 60*). In contrast to the other species of the genus, Ephedra andina does not contain any ephedrine, although vicenine-I and -II as well as flavones and camphor oil have been demonstrated to be present (Gurni and Wagner 1982; Montes and Wilkomirsky 1987, 40*). Further research is needed to determine whether this plant is psychoactive. The very similar species Ephedra multiflora Phil. is also known as pingo-pingo (Aldunate et al. 1981, 209*).
Ephedra breana Phil.—pingo-pingo
This species grows into a proper tree that develops a woody, thick trunk as large as 20 cm in diameter. It is found only in the extremely dry high desert of Atacama (northern Chile), where it is known as pingo-pingo or tume. The edible fruits are known as granada, “pomegranates” (Aldunate et al. 1981, 209*; 1983*). A decoction of the fresh or dried stems has very strong stimulating and mood-enhancing effects with pleasurable aphrodisiac sensations. In some ways, these effects are reminiscent of those of MDMA (cf. herbal ecstasy).
Ephedra campylopoda C.A. Mey [syn. Ephedra fragilis Desf. ssp. campylopoda (C.A. Mey) Aschers et Graebn., E. fragilis Desf. var. campylopoda (C.A. Mey) Stapf]—polik stap
This species is found primarily on Cyprus and the Greek isles (Sfikas 1990, 94*). In ancient times, it apparently was known as “food of Saturn.” Unfortunately, almost nothing is known about its early history. The modern Greeks consider the plant to be poisonous. Decoctions have only weakly stimulating, albeit very refreshing, effects.
Ephedra distachya L. [syn. E. maxima Saint-Lager, E. vulgaris L.C. Rich, E. distachya L. ssp. distachya]—sea grape, little sea grape
This species, which can grown as tall as 50 cm, is indigenous to the Mediterranean region and is also found in flat areas from the Black Sea to Siberia. It is sometimes regarded as a synonym for Ephedra gerardiana, which occurs only in high mountains. This species is primarily used in homeopathy (Ephedra distachya hom. HAB1, Ephedra distachya spag. Zimpel hom. HAB1, Ephedra vulgaris hom. HPS88). The herbage is nearly as rich in alkaloids as that of Ephedra sinica.
Ephedra helvetica C.A. Mey. [syn. Ephedra distachya L. ssp. helvetica (C.A. Mey.) Aschers]—Swiss ephedra
This central European species has rather thin green stems and a creeping growth pattern, achieving a height of only 20 to 50 cm. It thrives chiefly in rocky areas. Swiss ephedra is found primarily in Ticino and Valais (Rhône Valley), where it may be collected from the wild (Lauber and Wagner 1996, 82*). Teas made from the plant have stimulating effects that are similar in potency to teas made from Ephedra sinica.
Ephedra breana, known locally as pingo-pingo, occurs primarily in the higher regions of the Atacama Desert (northern Chile), where it can grow into proper trees with very woody trunks. (Photographed in the Atacama Desert)
Andean ephedra (Ephedra andina) grows at very high altitudes.
Ephedra distachya, found in Greece, develops red berries with a sweet taste. (Photographed on Naxos, Greece)
Swiss ephedra, Ephedra helvetica, is found in the Alps. (Photographed in Switzerland)
Ephedra microsperma, a species from central Asia.
Dwarf ephedra (Ephedra minima) is found on the Tibetan Plateau.
Large ephedra (Ephedra major)
The subspecies Ephedra major ssp. procera (Fischer et C.A. Mey.) Markg. is found in southern Greece.
The stimulating Mormon tea (Ephedra nevadensis) is occasionally found growing in rocks. (Photographed in Black Canyon, Colorado)
Ephedra intermedia Schrenk et Mey.—narom
Four geographically isolated varieties of this species are distinguished:
—var. glauca (Regel) Stapf (Transcaspian region, Pamir, Mongolia)
—var. persica Stapf (Iran, western Afghanistan)
—var. schrenkii Stapf (northwest Iran, Turkistan)
—var. tibetica Stapf (Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Tibet)
In Baluchistan (Pakistan), the aboveground herbage of the variety tibetica is used for dyeing and tanning (Goodman and Gharfoor 1992, 14*). A decoction of 25 g of the stems is drunk for back pain or as a general tonic (Goodman and Gharfoor 1992, 52*). In Pakistan, the herbage is burned to ashes and mixed with Nicotiana tabacum to produce a chewing tobacco (Morton 1977, 36*). In China, the variety glauca is one of the three ma-huang species (see Ephedra sinica). The Persian variety is known as hôm, hum¸ or huma and is regarded as a substitute for or ingredient in haoma.
Ephedra major Host [syn. Ephedra equisetiformis Webb. et Berth., E. nebrodensis Tineo ex Guss., E. scoparia Lange]—large ephedra
There are two subspecies of large ephedra: E. major ssp. major and E. major ssp. procera (Fisch. et C.A. Mey.) Markg. [syn. E. procera Fisch. et C.A. Mey.]. The subspecies major is found in Spain and along the Mediterranean Sea as far as western Asia. The subspecies procera is indigenous to Dalmatia, Greece, southwest Asia, and the Caucasus (Zander 1994, 256*). This rather rare and fairly tall plant contains more than 2.5% alkaloids, 75% of which is ephedrine (Morton 1977, 34*). It is thus a very good source of ephedrine.
Ephedra monosperma C.A. Mey—Tibetan ephedra
This high mountain species is found almost exclusively in Tibet, where it is known by the name mtshesdum. It has been a part of the Tibetan pharmacopoeia since ancient times and was mentioned in the Blue Beryl Treatise of Sangye Gyamtso (1653–1705). The herbage is used to treat “liver fever” and bleeding, but it is particularly renowned for its refreshing and rejuvenating properties (Aris 1992, 1:69, 2:225*).
Ephedra nevadensis Wats—Mormon tea
This species, which can attain a height of approximately 90 cm, predominates in the American Southwest. Analyses of coprolites (fossilized feces) have demonstrated that prehistoric Indians of the Caldwell Cave Culture (1200–1450) used this species for ritual or medicinal purposes (to treat diarrhea) (Sobolik 1996, 8; Sobolik and Gerick 1992). The Coahuilla Indians of Southern California call the plant tú-tut. They make an infusion of the plant for use as a stimulating tea (Barrows 1967, 73f.*). Because of the aphrodisiac effects of the plant and the teas made from it, it is also known as “whorehouse tea” (Morton 1977, 36*). It is one of the favorite drinks of the Mormons, who are otherwise avowedly “anti-drug.”
Ephedra torreyana S. Wats—Torrey joint fir
The Navajo call this species, which grows to a height of only 60 cm, tl’oh azihii libáhígíí (“gray rasp grass”). They use its stems as a diuretic to treat kidney ailments and venereal diseases and to alleviate postpartum pain. They roast the stems before brewing in order to remove their bitter taste (Mayes and Lacy 1989, 54*).
Ephedra trifurca Torr.—tlanchalahua
This Mexican species has been used medicinally since the pre-Columbian period. Teas (infusions, decoctions) made from it are used in folk medicine to achieve weight loss and to suppress the appetite (Martínez 1994, 304*). Such uses reflect the high alkaloid content of the plant.
See also the entries for Ephedra gerardiana, Ephedra sinica, and ephedrine.
Aldunate, Carlos, Juan J. Armesto, Victoria Castro, and Carolina Villagrán. 1983. Ethnobotany of pre-altiplanic community in the Andes of northern Chile. Economic Botany 37 (1): 120–35.
Groff, G. Weidman, and Guy W. Clark. 1928. The botany of Ephedra in relation to the yield of physiologically active substances. University of California Publications in Botany 14 (7): 247–82.
Gurni, Alberto A., and Marcello L. Wagner. 1982. Apigeninidin as a leucoderivative in Ephedra frustillata. Phytochemistry 21 (9): 2428–29.
Leroi-Gourhan, Arlette. 1975. The flowers found with Shanidar IV, a Neanderthal burial in Iraq. Science 190:562–64.
Lietava, Jan. 1992. Medicinal plants in a Middle Paleolithic grave Shanidar IV? Journal of Ethnopharmacology 35:263–66.
Nawwar, M. A. M., H. H. Barakat, J. Buddrust, and M. Linscheid. 1985. Alkaloidal, lignan and phenolic constituents of Ephedra alata. Phytochemistry 24 (4): 878–79.
Nielson, C. H., C. Causland, and H. C. Spruth. 1927. The occurrence and alkaloidal content of various ephedra species. Journal of the American Pharmaceutical Association 16 (4).
Sarianidi, W. 1988. Die Wiege des Propheten. Wissenschaft in der UdSSR 5:118–27.
Sobolik, Kirstin D. 1996. Direct evidence for prehistoric sex differences. Anthropology Newsletter 37 (9): 7–8.
Sobolik, Kirstin D., and Deborah J. Gerick. 1992. Prehistoric medicinal plant usage: A case study from coprolites. Journal of Ethnobiology 12 (2): 203–11.
Solecki, Ralph S. 1975. Shanidar IV, a Neanderthal flower burial in northern Iraq. Science 190:880–81.
Stapf, Otto. 1889. Die Arten der Gattung Ephedra. Denkschrift der Kaiserlichen Akademie der Wissenschaften (Wien), Mathematischnaturwissenschaftliche Klasse 56:1–112.
Tanker, N., M. Coskun, and L. Altun. 1992. Investigation on the Ephedra species growing in Turkey. Planta Medica 58 suppl. (1): A695.
Wallace, James W., Pat L. Porter, Elisabeth Besson, and Jean Chopin. 1982. C-glycosylflavones of the Gnetopsida. Phytochemistry 21 (2): 482–83.