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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 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.

Ephedra cutleri. Synonym: Ephedra viridis var. viscida. (Cutler's Mormon Tea, Cutler's Joint-fir)
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 to fifteen feet in diameter with many dense colonies in the same area. 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.

Several floras consider E. cutleri to be E. viridis var. viscida.

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 renamed the plant Ephedra cutleri.  (Click for more biographical information about Cutler.)

Ephedra cutleri. Synonym: Ephedra viridis var. viscida. (Cutler's Mormon Tea, Cutler's Joint-fir)
Ephedraceae (Ephedra Family)

Semi-desert. Sandy flats.  Spring.
Chaco Canyon National Historic Park, New Mexico, April 11, 2007.

Ephedra viridia
Ephedra cutleri. Synonym: Ephedra viridis var. viscida. (Cutler's Mormon Tea, Cutler's Joint-fir)
Ephedraceae (Ephedra Family)

Semi-desert. Sandy flats. Spring.
Canyons of the Ancients National Monument, April 25, 2009.

This E. cutleri has a heavy load of male spores.

Ephedra cutleri
Ephedra cutleri. Synonym: Ephedra viridis variety viscida. (Cutler's Mormon Tea, Cutler's Joint-fir)
Ephedraceae (Ephedra Family)

Semi-desert, foothills. Canyons, woodlands, shrublands.  Spring.
Canyons of the Ancients National Monument, December 8, 2014.

A Utah Flora and Flora of the Four Corners Region classify Ephedra cutleri as a variety of Ephedra viridis, a plant that grows to just a foot or two tall and is rhizomatous, spreading in 10 foot diameter circles. In the Four Corners area, Ephedra viridis almost always grows upright to about 5 feet tall and wide.

Take your pick, variety or species, it still looks like a pretty cool plant, and that's our pretty cool Willi next to it.

Ephedra cutleri

Ephedra cutleri. Synonym: Ephedra viridis var. viscida. (Cutler's Mormon Tea, Cutler's Joint-fir)
Ephedraceae (Ephedra Family)

Semi-desert. Sandy flats.  Spring.
Chaco Canyon National Historic Park, New Mexico, April 11, 2007 and Canyons of the Ancients National Monument, May 24, 2013.

In the top photograph at left, male cones swell on one stem as tiny leaves emerge on the other stem. Notice the grains of sand on the stems indicating that the stems are viscid, a key in distinguishing this species from all other species, including the sometimes, somewhat similar looking, E. viridis. Notice also the spring green color of the new growth at right versus the more yellow-green growth of the older stem at left.

In the second photograph at left, staminate cones are fully open.

 

Ephedra torreyana variety torreyana (Torrey's Mormon Tea, Torrey's Joint-fir)
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.)

Ephedra torreyana

Ephedra torreyana

Ephedra torreyana variety torreyana (Torrey's Mormon Tea, Torrey's Joint-fir)
Ephedraceae (Ephedra Family)

Semi-desert, foothills. Canyons, woodlands, shrublands.  Spring.
McElmo Canyon, Canyon of the Ancients National Monument, April 6, 2005 and March 9, 2016.

The blue-green color of E. Torreyana in the foreground of the top photograph at left and the interlaced stems in the background, are typical of E. torreyana.

The fresh green stem growth (versus blue-green) in the second photograph shows that you always have to expect the unexpected in botany. The three projections of scale-like, overlapping, tiny, leaves indicates that this is Ephedra torreyana. E. viridis and E. cutleri have just two points from which leaves grow at each node.

Ephedra torreyana

Ephedra torreyana

Ephedra torreyana variety torreyana (Torrey's Mormon Tea, Torrey's Joint-fir)
Ephedraceae (Ephedra Family)

Semi-desert, foothills. Canyons, woodlands, shrublands.  Spring.
First and third photographs: Corona/Bow Tie Arches Trail, Utah, April 13, 2005 and May 27, 2016. Second photograph:  Canyons of the Ancients National Monument, April 25, 2007.

In the top photograph at left, male cone-like structures open to disperse their spores; in the next photograph, female structures are ready to receive the spores; and in the photograph immediately below the seeds are ripening.

                                           Ephedra torreyana

 

Ephedra viridis

Ephedra viridis (Green Mormon Tea, Green Joint-fir)
Ephedraceae (Ephedra Family)

Semi-desert, foothills. Canyons, woodlands, shrublands.  Spring.
Above: Hidden Valley Trail, Moab, Utah, April 14, 2015.
Left: Grandstaff Canyon, Utah, April 13, 2005.

Ephedra viridis commonly grows three-to-five feet tall and wide; the Ephedra at left is typical. Vivid green and nearly vertical and parallel stems distinguish this species from E. torreyana and E. cutleri. Ephedra viridis 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".

Ephedra viridis

Ephedra viridis

Ephedra viridis

Ephedra viridis (Green Mormon Tea, Green Joint-fir)
Ephedraceae (Ephedra Family)

Semi-desert, foothills. Canyons, woodlands, shrublands.  Spring.
Canyons of the Ancients National Monument, April 17, 2012
Cross Canyon, Utah, May 17, 2015
Carpenter Natural Area, Cortez, May 8, 2015
Hidden Valley Trail, Moab, Utah, April 14, 2015.

The top photograph at left shows typical spore production from a male E. viridis, the next photograph shows the bright green, supple new growth of spring, and the final photograph shows female buff-colored cones.

 

Ephedra viridis

Ephedra viridis

Ephedra viridis

Ephedra viridis

Ephedra viridis (Green Mormon Tea, Green Joint-fir)
Ephedraceae (Ephedra Family)

Semi-desert, foothills. Canyons, woodlands, shrublands.  Spring.
Behind the Rocks, Utah, April, 15, 2008,
Colorado River Canyon Moab, Utah, April 13, 2005, 
Canyons of Ancients Monument, April 27, 2005,
Hidden Valley Trail, May 10, 2007.

Ephedra viridis grows green, straight, and tall. Early spring brings a yellowing of Ephedras as male floral parts grow and disperse their spores 

Ephedra viridis

Ephedra viridis

and female structures open to receive the spores.

The second and fourth photographs at left and the top picture above, show male cones; each cone is about one quarter inch in diameter. The photograph immediately above and the second from the bottom photograph at left show a hardy crop of maturing seeds. Many critters eat the seeds.

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