Tea Time: Yaupon
North America's forgotten native green tea
I unwrapped one of the two small packages I received in my stocking. Just a few square inches wide, and incredibly light in weight, I hadn’t a clue what they could be. As the contents inside were revealed, I exclaimed with delight. “YAUPON!! THANK YOU!” I had been gifted two types from my sister - green and medium roasted. I eagerly went straight to the kitchen to brew a cup. It was Christmas morning in 2022, and I had been curious to try yaupon ever since reading about it a year prior, but hadn’t yet gone out of my way to seek it out.
Yaupon is the only caffeinated plant that calls North America home, specifically native to the coastal southeast. A resilient understory plant that knows how to adapt to many variable conditions, yaupon can grow in maritime forests, in dunes, on the edges of the woods, and even in swamps. It can be considered either a large shrub or a small tree, depending on cultivar, environmental conditions, how much it’s pruned, and the viewer’s perception. Yaupon’s homelands are north to Maryland, south to Florida, and west to Texas.
Yaupon is a close relative of yerba mate, but I find the taste to be much closer to green tea. The leaves are roasted, giving the drink a rich flavor, but it has almost no tannins, so it doesn't have the astringency or bitterness that tea does. Yaupon’s caffeine levels are variable based on environment, soil quality, and exposure to stressors, but they are generally comparable to other teas like yerba mate and green tea. According to one study, fertilizing yaupon with nitrogen increases the caffeine content seven times the original amount. In addition to being a source of caffeine, yaupon is a nutritive plant in its own right. It contains exceptionally high concentrations of antioxidant polyphenols, especially when grown in full sun.
Yaupon has been part of the cultural foodways of many tribes in North America for over 8,000 years, and evidence of yaupon consumption has been found far beyond its native range. At least 500 years before European colonizers arrived, an extensive trade network was established all the way to Mexico and hundreds of miles to the north. For many, yaupon was both a daily beverage and an important component of spiritual ceremonies and rituals. When the Spanish arrived, they quickly picked up the habit of a daily yaupon infusion. Yaupon’s popularity rapidly exploded across the colonies and back to Europe. Eventually, it even threatened the British East India Company's control over the world’s tea supply.
For a short time, it was wildly popular, but it then faded into obscurity for 200 years. There are different theories as to why this happened, but one popular explanation is that it was intentionally given a misleading name. When it was first introduced in Europe, it was given the latin name Ilex cassine (Cassina Holly) because the Spanish called it Cassina (a name that is likely derived from the Timucuan language, while the name yaupon comes from the Catawba language). In the late 1700s, it was renamed Ilex vomitoria (holly that makes you vomit). Some colonizers had apparently observed yaupon being drunk to the point of vomiting, as part of ceremonial cleansing. While yaupon is no more emetic than tea or coffee, anything can make you vomit if you overfill your stomach with it. The name was changed, and the popularity subsequently decreased because it sounded like something that would make you ill. Many believe that this was on purpose, in order to remove competition from the market and maintain a monopoly for the British East India Company.
As demand was decreasing in Europe, indigenous relationships with the plant were being strained at the same time. Efforts by the US government to destroy indigenous communities, lifeways, and culture were well underway. As Native people were killed, forcibly relocated and violently removed from their homelands, many communities became disconnected from their traditional foodways. European colonizers who then moved into the area did not cultivate yaupon due to unfavorable market conditions. Because of this, yaupon has earned the moniker “the forgotten plant.”
In the past ten to twenty years, yaupon has been inching its way back into the public psyche. Herbalist Rosemary Gladstar once said, “plants step up when they are most needed …. People recognize it and then it spreads like wildfire.” I believe that that’s what’s happening with yaupon. While it was nearly invisible to many people for the past 200 years, it was always there, growing wild in its homelands. Small yaupon producers have been entering the market, and The American Yaupon Association was established in 2018.
Tea and coffee have been placed on a pedestal in our culture, but it's time for that to change. They come from too far away, and we have a nutritious caffeinated plant growing right here with us. Globalized food systems are unsustainable, unstable, and often unethical. We need a major shift towards local food systems, and we need it now. I greet each morning with a cup of green tea just about every day, but once my large bag of looseleaf is gone, I will turn to yaupon as my morning tea. It grows considerably further south than my home on Long Island, so it isn’t exactly local, but it certainly travels less distance to me than green tea does. Yaupon was “forgotten” for 200 years, but that’s changing, and we need to start supporting our nearest yaupon growers instead of massive tea and coffee plantations across the world. Beyond its nutritional value and caffeine content, yaupon provides food for wildlife and has the added bonus of being incredibly drought tolerant. As the climate changes, that’s going to be more important with each passing year.
Yaupon teaches us about the past, and is resilient enough to support us in an uncertain future. My teachers at CommonWealth School for Holistic Herbalism often say, “there’s always another herb.” By this, they mean that we shouldn’t believe marketing tactics that make us believe that we have to import exotic “superfoods” or certain kinds of tea. Tea and coffee are powerful plants, but building relationships with the plants growing right here with us is important for the planet and our communities. The most sustainable thing we can do is start making these swaps.