Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Crazy Plant: Ephedra

This plant is rather small, but Epherdra species can be quite sizable. These plants are also sometimes called mormon tea
Species in the Ephedra genus are some of the strange plants that have been placed into the Phylum Gentophyta. The Gnetophytes are vascular plants that appear to represent a stepping stone between the gymnosperms and angiosperms, with many characteristics supporting this conclusion. For example, double fertilization occurs but instead of the second egg developing into the endosperm that will provide food to the seedling, it simply dies off. I have mentioned another of the Gentophytes before: Welwitschia.

Unlike most plants, photosynthesis in Ephedra species happens almost exclusively in the stems. This is because the plant is basically all stem, with only tiny leaves between branch segments. This body structure is very reminiscent of certain horsetails, thought there are also quite a number of differences between them. That's why horsetails are in the completely separate Phylum Sphenophyta.

Fleshy female Ephedra cones
The fact that these plants produce something that looks rather a lot like a fruit would make an outside observer more than a bit skeptical about their placement in the plant world. However, thought the structures look like fruits, they are not. They are actually fleshy female cones. Though the general concept of "cone" is often restricted to things resembling pine cones, cones can come in a variety of types. Fleshy cones are far from unknown in the plant world and occur in such species as the junipers, yews, and the ginkgo.

In the United States, Ephedra species are found in dry the southwest, including such states as New Mexico and California. Two chemicals can be isolated from these plants: ephedrine and pseudoephedrine. Once a common component of weight loss supplements, ephedrine has been banned from supplements in the United States since 2004. This is due to side effects that were seen in people taking these products, including psychiatric issues, heart palpitations, nausea and vomiting. It's also believed that the chemical can be linked with far more serious issues, Pseudoephedrine is used as a decongestant and isn't as dangerous.


Sources are McDaniel College, United States Department of Agriculture, and National Institutes of Health. Images are from Wikimedia Commons under Creative Commons licenses: one, two.

8 comments:

  1. We have a gully that runs across the front of our property, and there are a bunch of ephedra bushes that cling to the sides. They're actually very picturesque, like big Bonsai trees.

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    1. We have one ephedra plant over on my campus that's about four feet across. It is really fascinating to get a good up close look at it. The stems are quite narrow, so it looks delicate despite its size.

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