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.