Breaking Brigham: Or, Methamphetamine and Mormon Tea

By August 26, 2013

Breaking Brigham

The original Heisenberg?

Over at the blog for The Appendix: A new journal of narrative and experimental history, Benjamin Breen has written a fascinating post on historical discoveries of illicit drugs. Capitalizing on the success of Breaking Bad‘s final season (a show centered around the dealings of a cancer-diagnosed high school chemistry teacher-turned-meth cook), Breen notes that while “the invention of Breaking Bad‘s blue meth has become the stuff of television legend” very few people “know the true origin stories of illicit drugs.”

After briefly covering “the first academic paper on cannabis” (penned in 1689 by British scientist Robert Hooke, who noted that ?there is no Cause of Fear, tho’ possibly there may be of Laughter.”), Freud’s 1884 publication extolling the virtues of cocaine, and “Albert Hoffmann?s accidental discovery of acid,” Breen turns his attention to “the strange fact that methamphetamine was actually invented in 1890s Japan.” In 1893, Nagayoshi Nagai successfully synthesized meth by “isolat[ing] the stimulant ephedrine from Ephedra sinica, a plant long used in Ayurvedic and Chinese medicine.”  For those interested in the whole story, I recommend clicking over and reading the entire post—it really is quite fascinating. But one throwaway line caught my attention and will almost certainly interest readers here. Describing ephedrine, Breen notes that it “is a mild stimulant, notable nowadays as an ingredient in shady weight-loss supplements and as one of the few drugs permitted to Mormons.”

Wait, what?

Unfortunately (from a scholarly point of view, that is), it is not true. And the post he links to says as much. But the story behind this is pretty interesting in and of itself. As Brock Cheney, author of Plain but Wholesome: Foodways of the Mormon Pioneers, explains in the February 2009 post linked to by Breen, the conflation of tea made from the ephedra plant with that imbibed by Brigham Young and other Mormon pioneers is a common mistake:

I’ve been chasing after this elusive goal for quite some time, and I have yet to find any primary source (Brigham Young, or otherwise) identifying tea made from the ephedra plant that grows indigenous to Utah. I have found several other primary sources which show that Brigham Young and many other pioneer settlers drank a sort of tea made from herbs and spices, carrying the name of either “composition tea” or “hot pepper tea.” One source called this tea insipid, and another called it the “Mormon Highball.” I have found plenty of references to this tea (and also recipes), but not a single reference to … ephedra[.]

Cheney followed up that post with another a few months later worth reading, and unsurprisingly to anyone who reads Keepapitchinin, Ardis Parshall has also written about the “composition tea” preferred by Brigham Young. I am still left wondering, though, about the history of the name “Mormon Tea” as it applied to the ephedra plant—even the United States Department of Agriculture calls the plant by its nickname. When and where did the connection occur? And why, aside from the fact that the plant is native to the red rock deserts of southern Utah, did it stick? Edje, can you do some digging? This seems right up your alley.

I’m sure this all comes as something of a disappointment to you Breaking Bad fans who were hoping to enjoy next week’s episode with a hot cup of ephedra tea, but hopefully some of you found this historical footnote interesting, anyway. It’s not everyday that you find Mormons and Methamphetamine crossing paths.

Article filed under Cultural History Current Events Environmental History Miscellaneous Popular Culture


  1. I once as a child had Brigham Tea in Kanab that was purported to have been brewed from ephedra (that is, from the plants that grew in the area that we called Mormon Tea). I didn’t have more than a swallow or two because it was not pleasant so I don’t what types of pharmacological effects those who drank it experienced.

    Comment by Wm — August 26, 2013 @ 12:42 pm

  2. Well, how curious is that. Ever since I was a child, I “knew” that the pioneers brewed tea from ephedra. Never thought a second thing about it.

    Here’s what the Daughters of Utah Pioneers say the pioneers used for tea. First, dried wild rose leaves. And I’ll quote the rest.

    Mormon Teas. When the word of wisdom directed the pioneers to give up their cherished tea and coffee, they found several comforting substitutes. Mormon tea?just a cup of hot water with cream or milk and a little sugar or honey added. How good it tasted on cold winter mornings.

    Sage-Tea. Made by brewing the leaves of garden sage and seasoning with cream and sugar. Many mothers used catnip, the weed grew everywhere, to make tea for supper or breakfast, as well as to give to babies when they had colic.

    Barley Coffee. Barley was browned in the oven, then ground to make a delicious coffee.

    Brigham Tea. Mountain Rush, from which a tea, commonly known as Brigham Tea or “Mormon Valley Tea,” was widely used by the pioneers. It was steeped like tea, and taken with or without milk and sugar, according to individual tastes.

    Mountain rush is Juncus arcticus. It does look somewhat like ephedra.

    So did someone point out the wrong plant and start an urban legend?

    Comment by Amy T — August 26, 2013 @ 1:11 pm

  3. Hey Christopher, first off, thanks for the kind words about my Appendix post!

    You were right that my comment about ephedra and Mormonism was a throwaway, and as you and several others have noted, I didn’t research the topic beyond having read vague references in secondary sources about “Mormon tea.” So I’m definitely open to being wrong here. On the other hand, after going back and re-reading Brock Cheney’s post and other writings about this, I remain convinced that there is a very good historical case that many early Mormons drank teas containing ephedra. For one thing, Cheney’s assertion that direct association of ephedra with the phrase “Mormon tea” “appears to be an attribution of the latter half the twentieth century” is plainly not true – a quick search of google books turned up various pharmaceutical manuals and travel accounts which directly linked ephedra and the terms “Mormon tea” or “Brighams weed” as early as 1891. See for yourself, there are dozens.

    Interestingly, the earliest printed association of ephedra with “mormon tea” I could find also contains a reference to Nagai. A treatise on materia medica, (1891) pg. 602, calls Ephedra “Mormon Tea,” says it “is used in Arizona as a recent infusion” and that “Professor Nagai discovered an alkaloid, which he named Ephedrin.”

    Is this conclusive proof that the followers of Brigham Young drank ephedra tea? Certainly not. But surely its suggestive that sources from 1891 are already making the connection, no? As for the claims about this particular species of ephedra not being psychoactive, I admit I haven’t tried it so I can’t say for sure, but it would seem that the most common ephedra species in the western US, Ephedra viridis (sometimes known as “Indian tea”) does contain ephedrine and other mild stimulant alkaloids. It looks like there’s considerable confusion between viridis and Ephedra antisyphilitica (a venereal disease treatment as the name implies) in the early sources though, so it seems possible that different ephedra species were in use under the same general names of “Indian tea” and “Mormon tea.”

    Anyway, sorry for the poor wording of the original post (which I’ve amended, along with adding a link here) and thanks for bringing this debate to my attention.

    Comment by Ben Breen — August 26, 2013 @ 2:07 pm

  4. That’s really interesting. Looking at pictures of Green Ephedra and Juncus Arcticus, they really do look extremely similar. So much so that I wouldn’t be surprised if some people harvesting the juncus accidentally harvested ephedra. Although perhaps when you’re looking at the full plant rather than a picture they are easier to distinguish.

    BTW – for a while ephedrine was made illegal. I believe it was relegalized but for various reasons most diet pills didn’t return to them. (That may be due to merchants like Walmart not wanting to stock it) I’m hitting the diet trail right now and the pills I take say in bold letters “no ephedrine.” I can’t recall the last ephedra pills I’ve seen. Back when I was heavily into athletics and the gym in the 90’s it seemed like everything had ephedrine in.

    Comment by Clark — August 26, 2013 @ 2:11 pm

  5. BTW – for those curious. Ephedrine is pretty much the same as caffeine in terms of effect. No weird psychological effects. Although you might get the shakes if you take too much.

    Comment by Clark — August 26, 2013 @ 2:12 pm

  6. Yes, if I had to guess, it would be that different species of ephedra were being brewed along with Juncus arcticus and that no one was paying much attention to Linnaean taxonomies. I run into the same issue studying the early history of cinchona (which also had a religious epithet, “Jesuit’s bark”) in Amazonia, where at least a dozen different related and unrelated plants were called “quina,” “cinchona, “chinae,” and all sorts of other variations. It gets incredibly confusing and in the end its very hard to prove using textual sources, because the texts themselves often don’t have a good grasp on the botanical differences.

    On the other hand, historical archeologists could do some really interesting work with this question as a starting point!

    Here’s the best available database of subjective descriptions of what ephedra feels like, although most of these are about the Chinese variety:

    Comment by Ben Breen — August 26, 2013 @ 2:19 pm

  7. An 1883 publication by the Iowa State Historical Society lists “the characteristic desert vegetation?sage-brush, grease-wood, rabbit-brush, mormon tea and three of four kindred shrubs to which popular names have been applied.” The author, W. J. Mc Gee is no more specific than that.

    Then an 1889 Pharmacology lists Ephedra Antisyphilitica, cataloged by C. A. Meyer with the common names “Brigham-weed, Mormon-tea, Mountain-rush, Whorehouse-tea; Canutillo, Tepopote (Span.).”

    The entry says it was used to treat gonorrhea and syphilis and unnamed skin diseases, usually by miners, so the use of the term “Mormon” may have been derisive rather than historical.

    There is no mention of it being used as a tea, since the entry notes that the active ingredients are not soluble in water or alcohol.

    Comment by Amy T — August 26, 2013 @ 2:23 pm

  8. Ben– the 1891 date you reference, combined with the native habitat of the faux ephedra plant in question (desert southwest and Mexico) would more likely lead us to believe that the “Mormon Tea” connection derives from the Mormon colonization of the Arizona Strip and Mormon settlements in Mexico, 1880-90s. Brigham Young being the face of Mormonism for such a long time, and he having already established tea preferences, perhaps it was easy to stamp his name on the tea. But having myself conducted the most exhaustive research into Mormon pioneer foodways to date, I can affirm that ephedra was not used as Mormon tea during the Utah pioneer settlement era, i.e. pre-1870. Perhaps this is all supposition, or perhaps it is trying to prove a negative, but if anyone has an actual primary source to share, I’d be interested to see it.

    Comment by Brock Cheney — August 26, 2013 @ 2:25 pm

  9. Hi Brock, thanks for weighing in. What you outline sounds totally plausible to me. Pre-1870 use indeed doesn’t seem to be possible to attribute based on the sources. My point was just that many references to it exist prior to the second half of the twentieth century, and that taken collectively, these references make a pretty compelling case for at least some “mormon teas” containing various species of ephedra. I do think Amy has a plausible point that the term may have originally started as a joke among miners though (turning “whorehouse tea” or “clapweed” into “Mormon tea”).

    Anyway, I’m totally ignorant about Mormon history so I’ll bow out of any more fine grained debates there, but as an historian of drugs, a general rule of thumb is that if psychoactive drugs exist in a region, people are going to take them, so I don’t see a plausible case for why Mormon settlers would be any different here, in deed if not in words. Especially if ephedra isn’t specifically named as an illicit drug or a plant non permitted to Mormons in any early documents, which it doesn’t seem to be.

    Comment by Ben Breen — August 26, 2013 @ 2:35 pm

  10. Wow–thanks, everyone for the great comments! And thanks especially to Ben Breen and Brock Cheney for stopping by and chiming in—your fascinating posts were what triggered the post initially, and it’s great to have you each participate in the conversation here.

    Wm and Clark–thanks for sharing your personal experiences and thoughts. Very interesting!

    Amy T–thanks for the great links and thoughtful suggestions on the origins of the name!

    Ben–thanks again for the fun and fascinating post at The Appendix. I read it with great interest and have shared it with several friends as well! No worries about the initial phrasing and thanks for linking to this post there. And thanks for the google books link. That adds an important corrective to Cheney’s commentary and makes this all even more interesting to me!

    Brock–thanks for the response and for your exhaustive research trying to track down earlier references!

    Comment by Christopher — August 26, 2013 @ 2:40 pm

  11. I just did some digging, and in the sources available to me, the genus and species isn’t ever given, though one late source explicitly calls mountain rush Brigham tea. The author who cited the source then goes on to say that mountain rush is ephedra. This same author goes on to include a picture of Ephedra funerea and then lists without citation all the various uses of both Native Americans and Mormons. He also lists synonyms: “Brigham tea, Mormon tea, Cowboy tea, Squaw tea, Whorehouse tea, Canyon tia.” The Fiffes collected a number of accounts of the use of “Brigham tea” which are in their collection. But these are all late, and don’t identify the plant beyond the colloquial name.

    Comment by J. Stapley — August 26, 2013 @ 2:56 pm

  12. And as for the psychoactive nature of “Brigham Tea”, the North American native ephedra does not contain ephedra in concentrations sufficient to cause hallucination, or even a mild buzz. I’m sorry I don’t have the reference handy to give, but I read a paper about this in the University of Utah medical library. The author of that paper had done the research and determined that ephedra had no medicinal quality whatsoever. It might be in the same genus as the Asian ephedra, but similarities stop with appearance.

    Comment by Brock Cheney — August 26, 2013 @ 3:03 pm

  13. The entry in The Merck Index (1989) reads as follows:

    3560. Ephredra Nevadensis. Cay note; canutillo; whorehouse tea; tapopote; teamsters’ tea. Leaves and branches of Ephedra nevadensis S. Wats. (E. antisyphilitica C. A. Mey.), Gnetaceae. Habit. U.S. (Calif., Nevada). Contains little or no ephedrine.”

    At this point, my best guess would be that someone, maybe the person who wrote the entry in the 1889 Pharmacology (C. A. Meyer, or “Mey” as he’s called in The Merck Index), mixed up Ephedra with Juncus (Brigham Tea), and the error has existed in some form ever since.

    Comment by Amy T — August 26, 2013 @ 3:13 pm

  14. The UCLA Folkmed Database has several entries for “brigham tea” Most are from the 20th century and don’t identify the plant. One entry identifies it as sage, and another as “jointfir grass” [joint fir (ephedra sp.)].

    Comment by J. Stapley — August 26, 2013 @ 3:18 pm

  15. I’m thinking that Richard Van Wagoner wrote in A Book Of Mormons that Elder Talmage experimented with cocaine as part of a scientific study. With that and brigham tea, O guess the old west really was the high country.

    Comment by larryco_ — August 26, 2013 @ 3:30 pm

  16. Brigham tea… sage … jointfir grass … ephedra … This kind of error, if made in the classification of mushrooms, could result in a quick trip to the morgue.

    Comment by Amy T — August 26, 2013 @ 3:38 pm

  17. Re: psychoactivity of the Western US ephedra species, the most up to date study on it I could find says that viridis and californica “contain pseudoephedrine, but no ephedrine (Adams Jr. and Garcia, 2006)” but that data is “contradictory.” I.e. they don’t produce the speed-like buzz that Ephedra sinica is purported to, but they’re likely still psychoactive, which would jibe with the various folk remedy accounts of the plants. Interestingly, another study (Caveney 2001) notes “it is feasible that the purported antisyphilitic efficacy of certain species in the southwestern United States is due to their methanoproline content” in the seeds of viridis and related species, so it actually seems plausible that these species were not only medicinal in the sense that they were consumed as medicinal drugs, but were actually effective. I’m sort of curious to try making my own “Mormon tea” at this point! I’ll report back here if/when do.

    Comment by Ben Breen — August 26, 2013 @ 4:47 pm

  18. This post, linked posts, and comments together are awesome.

    A bazillion blog-years ago J Stapley chided me for forgetting Mormon Tea in a list of Mormon-named organisms. I really missed out. This is pretty exciting stuff (physiologically and emotionally).

    Comment by Edje Jeter — August 26, 2013 @ 6:06 pm

  19. Great continuing discussion. Thanks, everyone.

    And larryco_, ha!

    Comment by Christopher — August 26, 2013 @ 9:42 pm

  20. I could get behind the “mormon tea” Amy mentions. I don’t particularly like tea, but it’s one of our national beverages and I apparently stand alone in my dislike. Tea without tea sounds great!

    Comment by Saskia — August 26, 2013 @ 11:11 pm

  21. Thanks. Enjoyed this.

    In the Botany volume by Sereno Watson from the Fortieth Parallel Survey, he mention ephedra being used as a tea.

    Anybody know what Powell says?
    And what about those juniper berries?

    Comment by SNeilsen — August 28, 2013 @ 5:29 pm

  22. […] Meth and Mormon Tea. […]

    Pingback by Sunday Morning Medicine | Nursing Clio — September 1, 2013 @ 8:08 am

  23. […] weeks back Christopher had a socks-rocking post (with great comments) on the alleged pharmacoactive properties and Mormon uses of ?Mormon Tea.? […]

    Pingback by Juvenile Instructor » Mormon-themed Aphrodisiacs, Part 1 of 4: Damiana (Possibly NSFW) — September 8, 2013 @ 9:43 pm

  24. For those interested, this post has been reposted at The Appendix‘s blog, along with a response from Benjamin Breen. It’s well worth reading:

    Comment by Christopher — September 9, 2013 @ 6:55 pm

  25. This is my favourite kind of post, where the comments end up being just as interesting and informative as the actual article itself! Thanks for sharing.

    Comment by Catherine — October 1, 2013 @ 4:03 am


Recent Comments

Smb on Reassessing the Classics: Armand: “Armand is a wise and lovely man who deserves these kind words. I absolutely agree that his books were key entries in the scholar’s library…”

J Stuart on Reassessing the Classics: Armand: “Armand, your response made me unexpectedly emotional. Your work has shaped me as a scholar in many important ways, but your legendary willingness to engage…”

Ardis E. Parshall on Reassessing the Classics: Armand: “I've enjoyed these three discussions -- crowned by this response by Armand Mauss himself. It is so representative of his ability and willingness to interact…”

Blair Hodges on Reassessing the Classics: Armand: “Thank you for your lasting contributions to Mormon Studies, Armand.”

Mirror on Reassessing the Classics: Armand: “These have been interesting posts about a major work in Mormon Studies. If I may boil down my understanding of Mauss' thesis to a…”

Armand Mauss on Reassessing the Classics: Armand: “I am pleasantly surprised and deeply grateful for the three assessments offered in this space this week by Gary Shepherd, Jana Riess, and Matt Bowman.…”