Early Mormon settlers used ephedra.
They weren't trying to drop extra pounds, stay awake at the plow or gain a competitive edge at the Saturday night hoedown.
The herb pioneers consumed wasn't the powerful Chinese variety called ma huang that is the center of a nationwide controversy sparked by the death of baseball player Steve Bechler, but a related milder species native to the Western United States.
In Utah, the coarse green shrub became known as Mormon tea or Brigham tea.
Various species of the plant can be found in dry areas in the western desert, Uintah Basin and southern Utah. Ephedra viridis (Latin for green) is the most abundant. Its spindly, jointed branches grow 2 to 4 feet long. Navajo Indians brewed the tops for cough medicine. Other tribes roasted the seeds and ate them whole or ground them into a meal.
Some accounts say American Indians introduced Mormon pioneers to the herb after they arrived in the Salt Lake Valley in 1847. But Stanley L. Welsh, the state's foremost authority on native Utah plants, says they probably stumbled across it on their own.
Many were herbalists who brought their own concoctions across the Plains and immediately set out to see what the local flora offered. Brewing the ephedra plant's rigid branches produced a tonic consumed for a variety of purposes.
"They used it as a hot drink in place of the proscribed hot drinks," Welsh said, referring to coffee and tea, from which members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are told to abstain.
Pioneers also drank the green tea for medicinal purposes.
"They used it to treat everything," said Welsh, who oversees the herbarium named after him at Brigham Young University. It was especially effective for clearing up runny noses. "It's an antihistamine."
Brigham tea goes by several other names, including whorehouse tea because it was also used to treat venereal disease, Welsh said.
Springville-based Nature's Way sells a dietary supplement called Brigham Tea made from ephedra nevadensis, one of the four or five varieties of the plant native to Utah.
The company touts ephedra's "energy properties" and says it was used anciently to promote circulation. It advises pregnant and lactating women to avoid the product.
The local species don't contain as much of the active ingredient ephedrine as ma huang, Welsh said. The Chinese herb is used in dietary supplements like Ripped Fuel and Metabolife. The Food and Drug Administration has taken steps to ban ephedra, saying it's linked to ill health effects and at least 100 deaths.
Safety concerns about ephedra prompted the Journal of the American Medical Association this week to call for dietary supplements to undergo the same government scrutiny as over-the-counter and prescription drugs. JAMA editors say the FDA likely would not have approved the herbal stimulant had it been subject to pre-market review.
In addition to its use in herbal supplements and beverages, Brigham tea also has aesthetic value.
"It's a great plant," Red Butte Garden and Arboretum horticulturist Marita Tewes Tyrolt said. "It's just so incredibly unusual looking."
Tyrolt highly recommends homeowners make it part of the landscape, mainly because it thrives without water. A relative of the pine tree, Brigham tea also stays green year round. The Utah Department of Transportation planted it along I-15 after the freeway reconstruction project.
"It is as drought-tolerant as they come," she said. "You could kill it if you water it after establishment."
Tyrolt enjoys the shrub so much she has one growing in her yard, though she has never steeped its twigs in boiling water.
"It is the prettiest stuff you have ever seen," he said. "It's almost fluorescent yellow-orange in color."
The liquid brilliance, though, belies the flavor. Apparently a side effect of Brigham tea is bad breath.
"It tastes very much like you boiled up an old sock," Welsh said. But "if you put enough cream and sugar in it, it is splendid."
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