Saturday, February 28, 2015

Squaw Tea (Ephedra californica) or maybe something else ?

Funny how some images can trigger totally unrelated information than what you were originally Google researching for

Face Palm
Finishing some work on one of my latest articles on the Canary Islands, in particular Tenerife, I was researching some of the names of plants I had photographed on a recent visit. I hit Google images for Plants of Tenerife and one image stood out which immediately brought up one common name for a high desert plant native to the region where I come from in Southern California. The infamous Squaw Tea. The plant I was familiar with grows abundantly in an area east of Terwilliger Road in the Anza area. The plant is Ephedra californica, but it is known by common historical common names as "Mormon Tea" and the other common name which immediately rushed through my brain, "Squaw Tea". Yes, Yes, I know, I know. We don't call it that anymore, but old common names and terms are hard to shake off. This particular photo of the girl above is a Spanish Model on a website with other girls in outdoor Canary Island nature settings. But the pattern of the shrub and the Native American styling of the girl just fit like a glove. Most foreigners reading here won't understand the comparison, but Southwesterners will put two and two together. I don't believe the common name with the Native American reference is encouraged these days, but never the less the old names are hard to shake. So I thought, why not, write a short piece on the plant. I'm not particularly partial to Mormon Tea either. Desert Tea appears to be another preferred name for Ephedra californica. But the similarities of structural patterns in foliage, branches and habitat are where it ends. The flowering time of year will yield radical differences. The southwest has a few varieties of Ephedra. In many desert locations both species (E. californica and Ephedra virides) exist together. The species, "Ephedra nevadensis" is found from the Mojave Desert north to the eastern side of the Sierra Nevadas into Nevada's Great Basin. I'll post the Green Mormon Tea plant in full bloom below and contrast it with Teide Broom when it is in full flower to illustrate some difference.

Teide Broom, Tenerife - (Spartocytisus supranbius)
The plant I was actually looking for when doing my Google search is native to the area of the volcanic caldera on Tenerife and it's listed as the Teide Broom (Spartocytisus supranubius) shrub. It thrives best on the dry xerophytic lava and scoria zone (2000-2500 meters above sea level). But it bares a striking resemblance to the southwestern desert Mormon Tea shrub of those high desert regions. The Ephedra californica that I am familiar with grows in the eastern reaches of Terwilliger Valley on down to Anza Borrego State Park. Throughout the world there are several species of Ephedra, which are related to the Ephedra sinica which is from the region of Mongolia, Russia and northerneastern desert regions of China. This plant is well known to Chinese medicine, but by a more familiar botanical herbal name called "Ma Huang". Here is how one reference describes it's usage and I'll post the reference under the Caution heading:
"A shrub, the stem of which contains ephedrine, which is a bronchodilator, diaphoretic, diuretic and vasoconstrictor; it is used to treat asthma, bronchitis, fever, fluid retention, hypotension, paraesthesias, to stimulate the central nervous system and to suppress the appetite."
This plant is responsible for providing the raw ingredient for the well known weight loss drug called ephedrine. In the USA, many of these drug potions which added Caffeine and other powerful stimulants for weight loss have been outlawed because they caused dangerous health conditions in some folks with heart trouble, high blood pressure, rapid breathing issues, etc. This is why many probably get a lot of Spam email advertising Ephedrine as an appetite suppressant. People want a quick fix pill to rapidly take care of a situation for which they have no patience in making lifestyle changes. While there is evidence of short term weight loss, there is really no evidence of any long term keeping the weight off. As far as the Tea from the Mormon Tea, for me it has a sort of mild Alfalfa taste to it and the potency is not near as strong as the Ma Huang drug manufactured for Chinese medicine. 
image Bert Wilson: Green Mormon Tea (Ephedra viridis)
image: Mundani Gardens - Teide Broom (Spartocytisus supranubius)
I think the Canary Islands are my new favourite Nature region. I have been here many times and it feels more and more with each visit more like Home to me than where I originally come from. There are so many interesting plants here and each time I want to know more and more about them. Technical and mechanism type stuff really. I always walk away with more questions than I came with. The chaparral environment is so familiar with where I come from, especially when so many plants here are so common in most California urban landscape. Anyway, tomorrow I have some fascinating information on Pinus canariensis, fire ecology and it's influence with the island's hydrology. But first, a little more on some historical ecosystem understanding of Mormon Tea diet by giant ground sloths now extinct.
Giant Ground Sloths dined on Mormon Tea
Photo by Leslie Shaw of Hi-Desert Star
"The Joshua tree drew a record-setting crowd for the Morongo Basin Historical Society’s lecture series Jan. 14 at the Hi-Desert Nature Museum. Chris Clarke spoke about how the tree got its name, how it is distributed, its two varieties, its pests and enemies and hopes for its future."

Photo by Chip Clark
Just a few side points on the Southwestern United States and what the now extinct Giant Ground Sloths dined on. Throughout many areas of the southwestern United States there have been found numerous caves discovered where these giant ground Sloth's once lived and in them mummified dung left behind. The dung really is not a fossil dung in the sense of fossils like petrified forest wood or other biological material with has been turned into stone, but rather mummified and preserved by the very dry sheltered environment of these caves. One famous cave is Rampart Cave in the Grand Canyon, another cave in between Benson & Sierra Vista Arizona called Kartchner Caverns, old lava tubes in New Mexico, etc. The animal's diet seemed to have consisted of plants from the various rugged chaparral plant communities (especially high deserts) such as Desert Globe Mallow, Joshua Trees & other Yuccas, Agaves and Mormon Tea. Other plants commonly eaten by these sloths found in Nevada were capers and mustards, along with lilies, grasses, mints, and a member of the grape family. This has all been verified by the examination of the invaluable mummified dung found in these caves. One wonders what happened as a result of this animal's extinction (which many now believe to be human caused because of it's slothful nature and easy hunting), what effect this has had on western ecosystems. Same is true of other now extinct megafauna like the Mastadon which was a browser as opposed to a grazer.
Some interesting as well as important links
The Biogeography of California Jointfir (Ephedra californica)

 Chris Clarke: "On the Dry Side" 

Some Caution