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Desert Diary


The Rio Grande Valley town of Canutillo lies north of El Paso. "Canutillo" is a plant, and presumably one that was prominent in the area. However, there are two candidates. The name "canutillo" commonly is used in the Southwest for species of plants whose English names are ephedra, Mormon tea, or joint fir. But occasionally the name canutillo is used to describe horsetails, or scouring rushes. Both plants may have been locally common when the land grant was assigned in 1823. While superficially similar, with jointed, nearly leafless stems, horsetails love moisture and the more common ephedra thrives where it is dry.

Ephedra has a long history of use in the desert, as an energizing tea made from the dry stems containing the stimulants ephedrine and caffeine, and as a medicinal drink once used for the treatment of diabetes, pneumonia, and syphilis. Although it lives in a habitat disdained by junipers and pines, ephedra nevertheless claims relationship. Indeed, look closely, and you may find small, papery cones, revealing the true affinities.
pen and ink

Listen to the Audio (mp3 format) as recorded by KTEP, Public Radio for the Southwest.


Contributor: Arthur H. Harris, Laboratory for Environmental Biology, University of Texas at El Paso.

Desert Diary is a joint production of the Centennial Museum and KTEP National Public Radio at the University of Texas at El Paso.

photo of Ephedra

Ephedra growing as a landscape plant on the University of Texas at El Paso campus. Because of supplemental water, the plant is somewhat fuller and with more new growth than is common in the wild. A sotol plant (Dasylirion) can be seen to the behind and to the left of the ephedra plant. Photograph by A. H. Harris, 23 June 2001.



Correll, D. S., and M. C. Johnston. 1970. Manual of the vascular plants of Texas. Texas Research Foundation, Renner, TX, 1881 pp.

Vines, R. A. 1960. Trees, shrubs, and woody vines of the Southwest. University of Texas Press, Austin, 1104 pp.