Beverage of the High Desert

Motorists on weekend jaunts from L.A. to Las Vegas drive for about four hours before they reach their destination. Once they're north of San Bernardino and past the Cajon Pass, they drive through what many people refer to as "miles upon miles of desert monotony."

The vast desert landscape all looks the same to someone with his mind on gambling, whose longest stop along the way is a bathroom break. But the high desert is a fascinating and diverse place, and the longer and closer you look, the more you see.

The monotonous appearance is due to the fact that two plants dominate the desert scene throughout much of the landscape from the Cajon Pass to Las Vegas. One is the creosote bush, regarded by some to be the oldest plant on earth. Though it looks like you are viewing individual shiny bushes, botanists say the plants are connected by their roots, and large communities of what appear to be many plants are actually one organism.

The other common plant is called Mormon tea. (Ephedra sp.), which the casual observer sees as a plant consisting of only dry twigs, somewhat like stiff pine needles. Mormon tea is a generally inconspicuous plant, with only scale-like leaves and tiny cones instead of flowers. It belongs to the gymnosperms, meaning it is in the same class of plants as pine trees and other conifers, so the resemblance to pine is more than superficial.

Mormons used to brew the stick-like growth of the plant into tea, hence the name. Since the Mormon religion forbids stimulants such as coffee or black tea, they turned to the natural environment and found that this tea substitute had a subtle, pleasing flavor.

Unlike leafy herbs that are best infused to make a tea, the twiggy Mormon tea stems are best gently boiled for a few minutes to bring out the flavor into the water. I have heard that the young twigs are best for tea. Take garden clippers and snip off about one handful of the stems. This can be brewed in about two cups of water. It is best brewed in a covered pot --"If you can smell it, you're losing it," as the saying goes.

The tea is only slightly colored --somewhat reddish-hued. Both the aroma and flavor are delicate and mild, but distinct. It makes a good tea with nothing added.

The plant actually contains small amounts of pseudoephedrine, an alkaloid which can cause constriction of the blood vessels and an increase in blood pressure, which leads to better filtration of urine through the kidneys. For this reason, it is said to be helpful for urinary tract disorders.

The plant is common in the Four Corners region of the American Southwest. The Hopi, Ute, Southern Paiute, and Navajo peoples have all used this plant as a medicinal tea for stomach pains, bladder and kidney problems, and nasal congestion. The twigs of one species was used by Navajo weavers to dye their wool a light brown color.

The Chinese relatives of this plant produce the drug ephedrine, a bronchial dilator and decongestant. Only traces of ephedrine are found in the American Ephedra species, so our Mormon tea is not useful for commercial production of ephedrine. Still, for home usage, it does make a good remedy for congestion and minor breathing problems.

In spite of the fact that there are negligible amounts of ephedrine in Mormon tea, it is difficult to find Mormon tea on the shelves of herb stores because some drug users abused the Chinese form of ephedrine (by taking large doses of it, presumably to get high). Still, there it grows out in the high desert, thousands of acres of it, where it can be gently picked and brewed for your evening meal. You may not desire it as a replacement for your morning cup of coffee, but it is still worthy of a spot in your cupboard.

sources: myself, and Christopher Nyerges. This has been a Node your homework production.

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