COMMON NAMES: Amsania, Budagur, Chefrat, Khanda Ma Houng (Tibetan), Ma-huang (Chinese), Narom (Pakistani), Oman (Pashto), Raci, Sang Kaba (Sherpa, ‘kaba incense’), Sikkim Ephedra, Soma, Somalata (Sanskrit, ‘moon plan’), Somalatha Plant, Thayon (Ladakhi), Tootagantha (Hindi), Tseh (Tamang), Uman (Pashto)
Ephedra gerardiana is a perennial herb with few leaves that is composed primarily of fibrous stalks. It gives forth small yellow flowers directly from these stalks, as well as round, red, edible fruits that ripen in autumn. E. gerardiana plants generally grow to about 8 inches in height, though they are able to attain heights of up to 24 inches (Morton 1977).
E. gerardiana is found in the Himalayan mountains from Afghanistan to Bhutan. It prefers dry mountains and high mountain deserts. In Nepal, it is most often found growing near Juniperus recurva and Rhododendron species. In the mountains, the herbage of this plant is an important food source for yaks and goats in the winter. These animals also appear to enjoy the stimulating effects of the plant. E. gerardiana may be grown from seed, and requires rocky soil. It needs very little water to survive, and even thrives in soil with high salt content (Ratsch 1998, 226-227).
TRADITIONAL USES: E. gerardiana has very likely been used in India since the Vedic period as a soma substitute. There came a time when the Aryans were no longer able to find the original psychoactive plant known as soma, perhaps because the identity of that plant was kept so secret or perhaps because it had been lost, and so it was that many people took to preparing the sacred soma beverage with substitute plants, one of which was E. gerardiana. This is how the plant received the name somalata, ‘plant of the moon’. The effects of E. gerardiana are more stimulating than visionary, however, suggesting that this plant is likely not the original soma of the Vedas (Mahdihassan 1963).
Excavations of ruins in the Kara Kum desert of Turkmenistan suggest that E. gerardiana may also have been a component of the Zoroastrian haoma beverage, which bears many similarities in name and description to soma. Indeed, haoma is said to be tall, fragrant, twiggy, and sexually and physically stimulating, just as E. gerardiana is. In the 19th century, it was found that the conservative Zoroastrians of Yazd in Iran used Ephedra as haoma, and also exported it to Indian Zoroastrians. Haoma is said to be ‘righteous’, ‘furthers righteousness’, ‘wise’, and ‘gives insight’. It is said that the father of Zoroaster mixed a piece of haoma with milk, and gave half to his wife, consuming the other half himself. They then conceived Zoroaster, who was filled with the spirit of the plant (Falk 1989).
Sacred vessels from the Temple of Fire Worship of Gonur, a settlement in Turkmenistan dating back to BCE, have been found to contain traces of Ephedra and Cannabis. Other nearby excavations have revealed traces of Ephedra mixed with poppy pollen in ritual vessels. It has been suggested that the Ephedra plant was utilized to counteract the soporific effects of these other entheogens in creating potent psychoactive brews (von Reis & Lipp 1982).
In Nepal, dried E. gerardiana bundles are burned as incense during cremation ceremonies. The smoke is pleasant and spicy, and has been compared to the smell of a forest fire. The ashes which are left behind may also be taken as a snuff. However, the plant is only taken internally by powerful shamans and high lamas, and is treated with much respect and reverence (Ratsch 1998, 227).
TRADITIONAL PREPARATION: Dry E. gerardiana stalks are boiled in water for ten minutes to make a stimulating tea. 6 grams of the dried herbage is a medicinal dose, while up to 30 grams may be taken to induce feelings of euphoria. However, alkaloid content may vary widely from plant to plant, so dosages must also vary (von Reis & Lipp 1982).
The Zoroastrian haoma, widely accepted as E. gerardiana is prepared by pounding the twigs along with a little bit of water. In some myths, it is mixed with milk. Only small amounts are taken at a time (Falk 1989).
MEDICINAL USE: In Ayurvedic medicine, E. gerardiana tea made from around 6 grams of dried herbage is used for colds, coughs, bronchitis, asthma, other bronchial troubles, and arthritis. In Nepal, a tea or incense is used for asthma, hay fever, and similar respiratory difficulties. In Tibetan medicine, a preparation of the plant may be used for rejuvenation (Manandhar 1980).
In recent years, ephedrine, extracted from E. gerardiana and other species of ephedra, has become popular as a weight loss supplement, although it can be dangerous, potentially damage to the heart, leading to heart attack, stroke, or death. In 2004, the FDA sought to ban the sale of Ephedra-based supplements, but were sued by a manufacturer of such supplements. The ban was thus temporarily lifted, but was reinstated in 2007. Interestingly, it was only Ephedra sinica that was outlawed. Ephedra gerardiana, and Ephedra viridis are still perfectly legal. Of course, it is still legal for pharmaceutical companies to use ephedrine extracts, and they may be found in over the counter medications containing ephedrine and pseudoephedrine. These pills are one of the key ingredients in the preparation of crystal meth. This is yet another example of the damage caused by the prohibition of relatively safe plants, and the ready availability of extremely potent processed extractions of those same plants (Wikipedia n.d.).
TRADITIONAL EFFECTS: E. gerardiana contains 50% ephedrine and 50% other alkaloids, such as pseudoephedrine (Manandhar 1980).A tea prepared from the dried herbage raises blood pressure, constricts blood vessels, is a diuretic, and creates stimulation and euphoria for 6-8 hours. Hay fever symptoms and other allergy symptoms are also completely eradicated, which is why ephedrine and pseudoephedrine are so popular in modern anti-allergy medications (Ratsch 1998, 227). Higher doses may cause dry mouth, sweating, heart palpitations, nausea, and numbing of the extremities. Individuals with heart troubles or who are taking MAOIs must avoid E. gerardiana. Modern psychonauts have suggested that E. gerardiana potentiates the effects of psychedelic medicines such as psilocybin mushrooms (Voogelbreinder 2009, 165).
“Ephedra.” Wikipedia. Accessed January 16, 2013. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ephedra#Safety_and_regulatory_actions_in_the_United_States.
Mahdihassan, S. “Identifying Soma as Ephedra.” Pakistan Journal of Forestry, no. October (1963): 370ff.
Manandhar, N.P. Medicinal Plants of Nepali Himalaya. Kathmandu: Rama Pustak Bhandar, 1980.
Morton, J. Major Medicinal Plants: Botany, Culture and Uses. Springfield, IL: Charles C. Thomas Publisher, 1977.
Ratsch, Christian., The Encyclopedia of Psychoactive Plants: Ethnopharmacology and its Applications. Rochester: Park Street Press, 1998.
von Reis, S., and F. Lipp. New Plant Sources for Drugs and Foods from the New York Botanical Garden Herbarium. Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press, 1982.
Voogelbreinder, Snu, Garden of Eden: The Shamanic Use of Psychoactive Flora and Fauna, and the Study of Consciousness. Snu Voogelbreinder, 2009.