Ephedra trifurca

Mormon Tea - Ephedra trifurca
South of Hillsboro, New Mexico
May 3, 2014

As we walked west of NM-27, south of Hillsboro, we came across “blooming” Mormon Tea.  I took a few photos and came home ready to post a rather straight forward identification.  Trying to determine if the plant was Ephedra trifurca or E. torreyana was not that straight forward.  That problem in identification sent me on a wonderful little journey.  Seems that Ephedra are cone bearing plants, they are in the Phylum Gentophyta.  “The Gentophytes are vascular plants that appear to represent a stepping stone between gymnosperms and angiosperms...” (read Stephanie’s blog post on this for more information).  As I furthered my research I was reminded that this is one of the plants, like so many desert species, in which photosynthesis occurs primarily in the stems - not the leaves - there being none.  “Like flowering plants, they have a cuplike perianth, but like gymnosperms they have naked leaves.”  They produce small cones which look like an odd fruit.

The common name, Mormon Tea, is self-explanatory as to origin.  What might not be obvious is that the medical uses of Ephedra have been known for centuries - taken orally it can have a similar effect to that of injected adrenaline.  The synthetic version of the Ephedra’s chemical base is called ephedrine and is a common treatment for allergies.

As for the identification -  Southwest Colorado Wildflowers was very useful in eliminating E. torreyana as a candidate. Vascular Plants of the Gila, lists only E. trifurca.  It is not apparent if the unlisted species are absent by commission or omission.  Southwest Colorado Wildflowers has some nice close-ups of the stems of E. torreyana, however, and their blue-green color is diagnostic.  The stems of the plant we found are a light green.  So my identification is E. trifurca.

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