Mormon tea refers to several plants in the Ephedraceae family — Ephedra torreyana, Ephedra viridis, and Ephedra navadensis — that are commonly found in the American Southwest and Mexico. A beverage brewed from the twig-like stems of the plant is called Mormon tea and was used as a folk remedy by indigenous groups and early American settlers. The herbal concoction was primarily used as a decongestant to relieve respiratory ailments such as asthma. In addition, the tea was used to treat urinary tract disorders and hypotension, and the stems of the plant were chewed as a remedy for sunburned lips. Also known as Brigham tea, desert tea, and popotillo, the tea is described as having an astringent but not unpleasant taste.
Generally, the plants are medium-sized woody shrubs that grow to a height of 2 to 5 feet (about .61 to 1.54 m). The plant is sometimes called a joint fir due to the jointed, needle-shaped stems that give a similar appearance to a small fir tree. It is a non-flowering plant that instead reproduces through spores, with each plant bearing either male or female cones. These cones are produced during the months of March and April.
There are various accounts about how the name came into use. The most commonly accepted version is that early Mormon settlers used the beverage as a way to comply with the religion’s rules prohibiting caffeine consumption. Another, more colorful story is that because the tea was believed to prevent syphilis, it was often served in brothels. The drink was allegedly named Mormon’s tea after John Mormon, a frequent patron.
Mormon tea is related to ma huang, or Ephedra sinica, an herb that has been used in Chinese medicine for several thousand years. Ma huang contains the alkaloids ephedrine and pseudo-ephedrine. These alkaloids have been shown to be an effective treatment for asthma and other bronchial disorders. Ephedrine has strong diuretic and stimulant properties and the alkaloid was used as a weight loss aid. Due to serious health risks ranging from elevated blood pressure and increased heart rate, dietary supplements containing ephedrine have been banned in the United States (US) since 2006.
There are conflicting reports as to whether or not Mormon tea plants actually contain the ephedrine and pseudo-ephedrines found in ma huang. Clinical studies on the effectiveness of the tea have produced no concrete results other than the tea is a mild diuretic. In spite of a long history as a folk remedy, the medicinal benefits of Mormon tea remain anecdotal.