1. n. Bot. A trailing shrub up to 5 m in height, with green flexible branches, scale-like leaves, and spherical fruit, of the genus Ephedra: Ephedra fragilis.
2. n. Bot. Any evergreen shrub of the genus Ephedra.
3. n. Bot. cap. Genus to which these plants belong.
From modern Latin ephedra, name for this plant; from Greek ephedra, name for the horsetail (Scouring Rush or equisetum); from ephedros, «sitting upon»; from epi-, «on», and hedra, «seat». It is explained by the habit of reclining or ‘sitting’ on any support that the species of this genus have.
Ephedra is a genus of trailing, evergreen, scalelike-leafed, gymnosperm shrubs. They belong to the family Ephedraceae or Gnetaceae, and are close to the angiosperms in certain anatomical and reproductive features.
Its type species is ephedra, Ephedra fragilis.
The name of the genus derives from modern Latin ephedra.
It comprises about 40 species.
Origin, distribution and ecology
The species of this genus are found in Europe, Asia, and North and South America.
They are bushy gymnosperms from the desert and sandy places. Some species thrive near the seashore.
These species are woody shrubs, somewhat short. Their stems are very branched and knotty, and the branches are green, crawling, or climbing.
Their leaves are tiny and scale-like, no more than 1 cm in length. Their arrangement is opposite or whorled about the nodes of green branchlets. This makes them resemble the horsetail.
Their flowers are unisexual, arranged in a catkin (ament).
Their fruits are red-colored berries.
In certain anatomical and reproductive features, the plants are close to the angiosperms.
Some authorities place the genus Ephedra as the only genus of its own family, Ephedraceae. Other older classifications place this genus within the family Gnetaceae.
The genus Ephedra is constituted by 40 species, approximately.
Its type species is Ephedra fragilis, “ephedra”.
Some of the most known species are the following.
- E. americana, “American ephedra”
- E. andina, “pingopingo” (Chilean)
- E. distachya, “uva de mar”
- E. fragilis, “ephedra”, “joint pine” (eastern Mediterranean)
- E. major, “greatest ephedra”
- E. sinica, “ma huang” (Chinese)
- E. vulgaris, “belcho”, “uva de mar”
The leaves, flowers, and fruits of several of this genus' species around the world are used in folk medicine and have also been used as food.
In China, several species of ephedras (Ephedra sinica, etc.), collectively known as ma huang, are being used in folk medicine for more than 5,000 years now. Ephedrine, a commercial decongestant drug, was obtained originally from its leaves.
In North America, the species joint fir and Mormon tea bush are sources of food and medicine.
In Chile, the fruit and leaves of pingopingo (Ephedra andina) are used in folk medicine as a diuretic and depurative.