However, this ancient beverage is legendary.
Not a standout plant, yet highly prized
Drinking yaupon dates back before Europeans arrived in the New World. A relative of yerba mate and guayusa, the plant is an easily overlooked small evergreen that grows along the coastal regions of the Southern United States and the Atlantic Coast. Its name comes from the Catawba word meaning little tree.
The Cherokees called it beloved tree and used the tea as an everyday drink as well as a component of important ceremonial beverages that were collectively known as black drink. It was usually consumed before going into battle, starting a new venture, or making important decisions.
Traded among native tribes in the Midwest, East, Southeast, and Southwest United States, the ornate and beautifully decorated shells used to drink yaupon have been found at archaeological sites far from the plant's natural habitat.
(Herb Roe, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)
(engraved whelk shell cup (replica) from Wickliffe, KY; Herb Roe, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)
Its reputation spreads
When Europeans arrived in the New World, the Native Americans shared their knowledge of this revered plant, and yaupon's use among European settlers became widespread. In 1615, the court physician, Francisco Hernández de Toledo, was ordered by King Philip II of Spain to study medicinal New World plants, including yaupon. It was exported to Europe under names like Chocolate del Indio in Spain, South Sea Tea in England, and Apalachine in France.
No one knows exactly why the tradition of drinking this tea stopped. One theory points to a conspiracy over the scientific name given to it by William Aiton, the royal botanist to King George III. Some believe he gave yaupon its name because he was secretly employed by the world’s first multinational corporation, the East India Company, which wanted to preserve its stranglehold on the world tea trade. The botanist Carl Linneas first assigned the species the scientific name, Ilex cassine, in 1753.
(16th-century engraving by Jacques Le Moyne of the black brink ceremony among the Timucua of Florida)
The plant was traditionally used by Native Americans to make an infusion containing caffeine. It is only one of two known plants endemic to North America that produce caffeine.
Yaupon holly is an evergreen shrub or small tree reaching 15-18 ft. tall, with smooth, light gray bark. The leaf arrangement is alternate, and the fruit is a small shiny round red or yellow drupe that is scattered by birds. The species is distinguished from Ilex cassine by smaller leaves with a rounded apex.
In its native range, yaupon is widely used as a landscape plant.
Habitat and range
Ilex vomitoria grows in the United States from the eastern shore of Virginia, south to Florida, and west to Oklahoma and Texas. A separate population occurs in the Mexican state of Chiapas. It's also found in Veracruz, the Bahamas, Cuba, and Puerto Rico.
The plant is generally found in coastal areas with well-drained sandy soils such as the upper edges of salt and brackish marshes, coastal sand dunes, dune depressions, sandhills, maritime forests, non-tidal forested wetlands, well-drained forests, and pine flatwoods.
Ilex cassine is native to the southeastern coast of North America from Virginia to southeast Texas, Commonly known as dahoon holly or cassena, the name derived from the Timucua name for I. vomitoria.
Yaupon berries are an important food for many birds, including the Florida duck, American black duck, mourning dove, ruffed grouse, bobwhite quail, wild turkey, northern flicker, sapsuckers, cedar waxwing, eastern bluebird (pictured below), American robin, gray catbird, northern mockingbird, and white-throated sparrow. Mammals that eat the fruit include nine-banded armadillo, American black bear, gray fox, raccoons and skunks. The foliage and twigs are browsed by white-tailed deer.
Native Americans used the leaves and stems to brew a tisane for male purification and unity rituals. The ceremony included vomiting, leading to the conclusion that yaupon caused it. The active ingredients, like those of the related yerba mate and guayusa plants, are caffeine, theobromine, and theophylline.
Yaupon contains no emetic properties. Vomiting may have resulted from consuming large quantities of the beverage while fasting. Euell Gibbons, a popular expert on edible wild plants, claimed it was an entirely different drink made from various roots and herbs and did cause vomiting. Native Americans may have also used the infusion as a laxative.
At least nine small American companies now grow and sell yaupon tea. These growers recently created the American Yaupon Association to promote their tea.
Ilex vomitoria is a common landscape plant in the Southeastern United States. The most common cultivars are slow-growing shrubs popular for their dense, evergreen foliage and adaptability to hedge pruning. These include: 'Folsom Weeping', 'Grey's Littleleaf', 'Nana'/'Compacta' – dwarf female clone usually remaining below 3 ft. in height, 'Will Fleming' – male clone with columnar growth habit, 'Pride of Houston' – female clone with improved form, fruiting, and foliage, 'Schilling's Dwarf'/'Stokes Dwarf' – dwarf male clone, and 'Pendula' – "weeping" variety (highest caffeine content).
Plants are either male or female. In order to produce berries, be sure you have one of each.
When you purchase through links on our site, we may earn commissions at no cost to you.