Ephedra describes the only genus of the family Ephedraceae, which is the only family in the order Ephedrales. There are dozens of species in the genus. However, those that contain ephedrine and pseudoephedrine are the most commonly known as medicinal herbs.
Physical characteristics of Ephedra shrubs
Ephedra plants are gymnosperm shrubs, which means that their seeds are exposed, rather than encased in a shell like some other plants. In this way, they are related to conifers and ginkgo. The location and appearance of the seeds depends on the species. Seeds are fertilized by the pollen of the males.
The shades of Ephedra plants vary widely on the green scale. Some are so pale as to almost be yellow. Some take on a deep green color like many evergreens. Some of the cones of Ephedra shrubs are brightly colored. They can be red or differ only slightly from the color of the leaves and twigs.
The size of Ephedra shrubs does not vary much. However, the appearance does. Ephedra distachya has long green twigs, from which red cones and green leaves grow. Some of the twigs stand up, while some flop over as if the weight of the tiny cones were too much to bear. Ephedra fasciculata is also spiky with long twigs, but much less ornate. Other species are bushier with lower twigs. Some grow in full while some are sparse.
Life cycle and habitat of Ephedra shrubs
Ephedra grows in both dry and temperate climates in numerous countries. The habitat and life cycle of each shrub depends on the species and location. There are even disparities within species, such as with Ephedra nevadensis. The females of the species grow in wet areas. The males grow in dry areas. Reproduction is accomplished by pollen blowing in the wind.
Medicinal uses for Ephedra shrubs
The Ephedra species that are of the most interest to humans are those that contain useful alkaloids, particularly ephedrine and pseudoephedrine. Some that contain negligible amounts of these alkaloids are still used in herbal folk remedies like Mormon tea. The most potent Ephedra species are used in proven medicine for a variety of ailments.
It is possible to trace the history of Ephedra's use as medicine back to roughly 7,000 years ago. It was not until the late 19th century that the active components of the shrubs were isolated by Nagai Nagayoshi. These plants are strongly regulated in some areas because they contain alkaloids that are dangerous when used as weight loss pills. These stimulants can cause addiction and serious health problems.
Ephedrine is a bronchodilator. In other words, it works to treat asthma and other breathing problems. This is the traditional use for the medication and why pseudoephedrine, which is less effective, is found in modern cold remedies. It is also used in a seasickness concoction for U.S. Coast Guard members.
A formerly legal use for ephedrine that is now illegal was as a stimulant for athletes. Ephedrine was available in both pill and liquid form with caffeine. Together, they would give an athlete the energy to work out and promote weight loss. It was very effective. The problem was that it caused severe health problems, such as heart attack.