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In Your Backyard: Yaupon tea, no longer a thing of the past

By by Maridel Martinez
April 29, 2014 at midnight
Updated April 28, 2014 at 11:29 p.m.


If you are part of the growing number of folks trying to buy locally grown, sustainable and organic foods containing no genetically modified organisms, you probably figure that expecting a caffeinated drink to fit any of those descriptions is going a little too far because caffeinated plants don't grow locally, right?

Wrong.

Look no farther than perhaps your own backyard area, if you are lucky enough to live in one of the Texas counties where yaupon holly seems to thrive. Yaupon holly is the only naturally caffeinated plant in North America and grows in the southeastern part of our country, including Texas. It is also an anti-inflammatory and rich in antioxidants, and research at Texas A&M has yielded positive results on its effects on colon cancer.

It was once such a popular beverage in North America that even the Indians who lived beyond its native range imported it from more than 300 miles away. Telling them that their favorite beverage would be effectively unknown within 200 years would be like telling us that 200 years from now people will only use coffee and tea plants for landscaping with no idea that they had ever been used for anything else.

In 1615, a Spanish priest in Florida wrote "any day that a Spaniard does not drink it (yaupon tea), he feels that he is going to die." And added that he knew of no Indian or Spaniard who did not drink it every day in the morning and evening. Yaupon tea has a unique and fascinating history dating to prehistoric times. The "black drink," as it was often called, was used by Native Americans in spiritual and purifying ceremonies.

Because of its health benefits and stimulating properties, yaupon tea enjoyed centuries of popularity among many cultures. For a short time, it was even exported to England and France.

Its use declined in the 19th century, and yaupon tea was overshadowed by imported beverages such as coffee, tea, chocolate and now yerba mate. Yaupon is related to South America's yerba mate, which is also a holly.

Although it was held in such high esteem for centuries, it is often considered a nuisance plant among many landowners and used primarily as an ornamental plant by landscapers. What a dramatic decline in status.

Professor Jack Putz, professor of botany at the University of Florida, says yaupon holly's scientific name, Ilex vomitoria, destroyed its commercial potential. Scottish botanist William Aiton, who gave yaupon its scientific name, had not traveled to North America.

Instead, he based the name off of a great fascination with stories told by early explorers about Indian rituals of ceremonial vomiting. It is still unclear as to what they were actually drinking since it did not cause Europeans to vomit.

Putz goes on to say, "researchers have revealed no emetic compounds in yaupon tea; it simply does not induce vomiting." He jokingly adds that Aiton was likely in the employment of Ceylon British tea merchants.

Just as tomatoes were thought to be poisonous until about a hundred years ago, many people continue to believe that yaupon holly is poisonous. When conducting yaupon tea tastings, I have been questioned by many master gardeners who are both surprised and interested in the idea of yaupon tea.

Just last month, I received Google alerts of two gardening columns from newspapers in Louisiana and North Carolina describing yaupon holly bushes as being good for the garden because they are green in winter and provide berries for wildlife.

Both articles were written by gardeners and warned that the plant caused vomiting, hence the scientific name. I contacted both of them; they were quite responsive and corrected the information in their next columns. Hopefully, it will not take 100 years, as it did for the poor tomato, for yaupon tea to be rediscovered.

Maridel Mercier Martinez, owner of Yaupon Mercantile LLC, harvests, roasts and packages yaupon tea. Her mission is to reintroduce yaupon tea to the U.S. market.

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