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Living History: Mormon Tea, good for what ails you?

Published December 8, 2012 4:12 pm

Folklore • Drink was said to sure many ills, but take that with a grain of salt.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Mormon Tea, also known as Brigham Tea, is made from a leafless shrub with jointed stems that grows abundantly in the deserts of the Southwest. The green stems can be cut up, boiled and left to steep for 20 minutes before being spat out as too nasty for human consumption.

The local variety is related to the Chinese plant from which ma huang tea is made. It is said that the ever-thrifty Brigham Young encouraged use of the local decoction rather than the more expensive Asian import.

Which isn't exactly how I heard the story. On a family trip to southern Utah, my Aunt Barbara pointed out a spindly plant and said our English pioneer ancestors, desperately missing their Earl Grey, resorted to anything at hand and settled on "Mormon Tea" during the trek west.

Another version holds that Indians, long familiar with the plant's medicinal properties, introduced it to their new neighbors, which accounts for one of the tea's many names: Squaw Tea.

Soon Mormons were enthusiastically singing the praises of the plant's restorative powers, especially Young. Mormon lore says it was the pioneer treatment for asthma, upset stomach, headaches, cold, flu, rashes, itchiness, chills, fevers, aches, joint pain, bad blood, constipation and lethargy. Also known as Whorehouse Tea, it was held to cure venereal disease.

The problem in these tellings is there are no LDS journal references to this particular drink or its powers until after Brigham Young's death.

In Plain But Wholesome: Foodways of the Mormon Pioneers, Brock Cheney points out the plant's first mention coincides with LDS settlement in the last decade of the 19th century in Arizona and Mexico, where it is ubiquitous. The plant is absent in northern Utah and on the Mormon Trail.

Some report a mild buzz after drinking copious amounts of Mormon Tea, which isn't surprising, since it contains ephedra. The supplement industry once made hundreds of millions promoting ephedra as a way to lose weight and achieve alertness until thousands of reports of serious illness, and even the high-profile deaths of professional athletes, led to its banning in 2006 by the Federal Drug Administration.

In modest amounts, Mormon Tea seems to be a mild stimulant and helps breathing, but the outsized health claims associated with it should be taken with a grain of salt.

If Brigham didn't have his Brigham Tea, what other nuggets of received wisdom might be at risk?

Cheney informs us that Brigham did indeed have his tea, which was popular among the upper echelons of Mormondom. Called a composition tea, it included cayenne pepper, bayberry bark, hemlock bark, ginger and cloves, all ground into a powder. Young's daughter, Clarissa, recommended "plenty of cream and sugar."

One unsuspecting friend of Young consumed the tea to excess and found himself the worse for wear. Thereafter, he called this tonic the "Mormon Highball." Sounds to me like the makings of an even better folk tale.

Pat Bagley is the editorial cartoonist for The Tribune.