Ephedra is a dioecious gymnosperm in the Ephedraceae family, where it is the only genus. It grows worldwide on shorelines or in sandy soils in direct sun in the dry climates of the Northern hemisphere. It’s found in the Southern Hemisphere in Patagonia. Ephedra has tough, bright green stems that are long and jointed. The leaves of Ephedra are primitive and scale-like, and the flowers, which bloom in the summer, are small and bright yellowish green. The branches should be gathered in the autumn before frosts, when the alkaloid content is the highest.
Ephedra is a vasodilator, antispasmodic, expectorant, emmenagogue, analgesic, hypertensive, circulatory stimulator, and anti allergic. It can work very well to treat low blood pressure and poor circulation, as well as lung conditions and coughs, such as whooping cough and bronchitis. It is considered a heating, astringent herb, affecting primarily the respiratory, nervous, urinary, and circulatory systems. It’s diaphoretic properties can be increased by combining it with cinnamon and ginger. It is thought to increase the metabolism and aid in weight loss. Ephedra is also the source of the drug ephedrine, which was commonly used to treat asthma, hay fever, and allergies until it was realized that this concentrated constituent was causing very high blood pressure. However, the herb in it’s entirety contains alkaloids that counteract this effect, making it safe and effective for asthma, coughs, hay fever, relieving spasms of the bronchial tubes, and rheumatism, with an overall benefit of balance when used in short doses. It’s been used medically in China for over 5000 years, where it is known as Ma Huang, and it still used to this day by both Western and Eastern herbalists. It should still be used with care, as it has many counter-indications and prolonged use or inappropriate dosage can overstimulate the adrenal system and burn out the nerves, or cause restlessness and anxiety. These side effects can be reduced slightly by combining it with licorice, but it should not be used by people who have trouble sleeping, heart palpitations, anxiety, high blood pressure, jitteriness, or similar conditions.
There are other varieties of Ephedra, such as Ephedra gerardiana and Ephedra vidris, that are diuretics and can help purify the system. Ephedra vidris, also known as Mormon’s Tea, Whorehouse tea, and Green Ephedra, which was used by Native Americans as a decoction to stop internal bleeding and cure venereal disease, as well as purifying the blood and cleansing the kidneys. It’s said that as the Mormons arrived in the west, they were introduced to the refreshing, awakening, piney tasting tonic of Ephedra vidris, and began to use it as a substitute for coffee. It’s diuretic qualities soon grew a reputation for treating gonorrhea and syphilis, and brothels of the old west began to serve it. In reality, it has no effect on either disease.
1-2 teaspoons of the dried herb per cup of water in a decoction, simmered for 10-15 minutes and drunk three times daily. As a tincture, 1-4ml, three times daily.
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Main image from Northern Arizona Flora