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 even though BONAP shows E. torreyana as native and not rare in our area.  The BONAP map to the right depicts the range of Ephedra trifurca in the lower 48 of the United States.  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.

© Robert Barnes 2018-2023