What if you were surrounded by tea and didn’t know it? In an age where tea is the most consumed drink on the planet after water and is expected to become an $81.6bn global industry by 2026, the possibility of living among an endless supply of ready-to-be-picked, wild tea might seem like a far-fetched dream. But across large swaths of the southern United States, such a reality exists.
For those who know what to look for, what was once the most widely consumed caffeinated beverage in the Americas comes from a plant growing in plain sight, ignored by most, but deeply rooted deep in history and intrigue.
Yaupon (pronounced yō-pon), is a holly bush indigenous to the south-east United States and happens to be North America’s only native caffeinated plant. Once called “cassina” by the native Timucua tribe that lived in southern Georgia and northern Florida, and dubbed “black drink” by Spanish explorers (because of the tea’s dark hue), yaupon’s native environment spans the Atlantic Coast from Virginia to Florida and along the Gulf of Mexico all the way to West Texas.
The leaves yield a yellow to dark-orange elixir with a fruity and earthy aroma and a smooth flavour with malty tones
According to research conducted by Dr William Merrill of the Smithsonian Institution, the shrub was consumed by almost every Native American tribe who lived among it. When picked, roasted and boiled, the leaves yield a yellow to dark-orange elixir with a fruity and earthy aroma and a smooth flavour with malty tones. As if orchestrated specifically for the mind and body, yaupon leaves’ perfect ratio of stimulating xanthines such as caffeine, theobromine and theophylline release slowly into the body, providing a jitter-free mental clarity and an ease to the stomach.
Today yaupon, which is distinguished by its dense, ovular green leaves and bright red berries, continues to grow widely throughout rural and suburban America, where it can be found in forests, on coastal islands and adorning neighbourhoods as an ornamental bush. Very few people, however, know that it can be brewed. Yaupon’s role in North American history has been fragmented, and only after a centuries-old history steeped in mysticism and international fame are people now beginning to recognise that they are living among the US’ forgotten native tea.
The earliest origins of caffeinated beverages around the world are linked with spiritualism and medicine. According to Judith Hawley, professor of 18th-Century literature at Royal Holloway, University of London, coffee spread from Ethiopia starting in the 9th Century as a way for religious devotees of Sufism to remain alert and worship until the early hours of the morning. And according to research by Dr Chung Yang of Rutgers University, tea was consumed in China for thousands of years strictly as a medicine before becoming a popular beverage during the Tang and Song Dynasties (roughly 618–1279AD).
Yaupon played a similar role for Native American tribes, including the Creek, Timucua, Chitimacha, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Cherokee, Apalachee and many others. The oldest-known evidence of yaupon consumption comes from the Cahokia Mounds in Illinois, where the holly’s residue was identified inside ornately decorated ceramic vessels dating to 1050AD. While archaeological evidence suggests that the beverage was important to Native American culture for at least 1,000 years, the most widely distributed descriptions of its use come from Europeans such as Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca, who identified yaupon while exploring the Texas coast in 1542, and English-Jamaican merchant Jonathan Dickinson, who observed several yaupon ceremonies in Florida after being shipwrecked in 1696. Though it was also consumed as an everyday, energising beverage among Native Americans, yaupon was commonly associated with purification and was incorporated into men’s-only rituals that often involved fasting, drinking and vomiting to cleanse the body and mind.
“Before a big decision was made, yaupon would be consumed to purify people so that their decisions were clear,” said University of South Florida ethnobotanist and medical anthropologist Dr Anna Dixon. Yaupon has no emetic properties, so historians postulate that other herbs were occasionally mixed in to induce vomiting, and that the sheer act of drinking huge volumes of yaupon on an empty stomach could have been vomit-producing on its own.
Yaupon was popularly sold in London as South Seas Tea and served in Parisian salons as Apalachine
A collection of first-hand accounts compiled by Dr William Sturtevant, past curator at the Smithsonian Institution, noted that as Europeans continued to explore and colonise the southern United States, they frequently encountered yaupon and often assimilated it into their own lives. At the Spanish outpost of Saint Augustine in northern Florida, yaupon was consumed to such an extent that in his 1615 chronicles of New World medicinal plants, botanist Francisco Ximenez noted that, “Any day that a Spaniard does not drink it, he feels he is going to die.” In his volume, Black Drink published in 1979 which explores the history of yaupon, anthropologist Dr Charles Hudson of the University of Georgia noted that by the time of the American Revolutionary War (1775-1783), the holly was grown on colonial farms, consumed widely in towns across the US South and traded to Europe where it was popularly sold in London as South Seas Tea and served in Parisian salons as Apalachine. Yaupon’s success as an international beverage, however, was not to last.
While travelling through North Carolina in 1783, German botanist Johann David Schöpf recorded in his diaries that the naturally sweet alternative to traditional black tea had become so popular by the 1780s that the British East India Company deemed it a threat to their control of the tea market, and England limited yaupon’s importation into Europe. In 1789, William Aiton, a famed botanist and the first superintendent of Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, appointed by King George III, gave yaupon its controversial scientific name, Ilex vomitoria. While some believe that Aiton’s nomenclature reflected yaupon’s ritual consumption among Native Americans, others believe it was a politically motivated smear campaign to further squash the threat to the English tea trade. Whatever his underlying motivation, Aiton’s unsavoury naming tainted yaupon’s reputation and instilled a lasting fear of unwanted side effects.
By the mid-1800s, yaupon’s popularity in the US further declined as it became associated with poor, rural communities who could not afford to import traditional Chinese tea. The plant’s intimate connection to Native American communities also diminished, as tribes were either wiped out or relocated to regions where yaupon didn’t grow. While yaupon ceremonies have persisted within some Native American tribes such as the Cherokee, and the beverage maintained popularity along isolated coastal areas in North Carolina, the tea became largely forgotten in the United States by the 1860s where it grew incognito for nearly 150 years.
In 2011 following a devastating drought, Texas native Abianne Falla looked out over her family’s farm and contemplated a row of healthy, green bushes that contrasted with the otherwise desiccated landscape. A few years later and 1,000 miles east in Florida, Bryon White made a similar observation while hiking through coastal forests near his home. After Falla and White independently researched the resilient plants, the two were shocked to discover that the holly not only brewed a tasty, caffeinated drink, but was also a central character in a largely forgotten story.
I just couldn’t believe that nobody knew about it
“As I began to learn more about yaupon, I was floored,” said White, “I just couldn’t believe that nobody knew about it.”
Though White quickly became fascinated with the holly’s history, he also realised that trying to brew an actual drink from it would be difficult, as there was no-one left to learn from. Guided by instructions he found in colonial diaries compiled in Dr Hudson’s volume about yaupon, White began picking the leaves and experimenting with roasting techniques. In a similar fashion, Falla tried roasting her first batch of yaupon in the family kitchen, discovering that she had a natural talent for creating a delicious nutty and buttery flavour.
Guided by a curiosity for botany and an interest in history, Falla and White unexpectedly found themselves on parallel journeys to revive the ancient beverage, with Falla starting Catspring Yaupon outside Austin, Texas, in 2013, and White founding Yaupon Brothers in Edgewater, Florida, in 2015. Today, yaupon continues to grow in popularity as additional startups have begun selling and promoting the historical beverage.
“When we started selling it at farmer’s markets in Texas in 2016, people were completely perplexed,” reminisced Lost Pines Yaupon co-owner Heidi Wachter, who alongside her partner Jason Ellis also perfected their yaupon knowledge through at-home experimentation. “[Locals] recognised it as a landscaping plant but had no idea it was also a tea.” Once they tried it, however, customers returned week after week asking for more.
Yaupon’s demand has rapidly soared as it becomes increasingly recognised across the US. In 2018, the American Yaupon Association (AYA) was founded to help connect yaupon enthusiasts and to ensure that the quickly rebounding industry honoured its past in an ethical way. With success comes responsibility and a chance to reverse patterns of colonialism and exploitation that have plagued other caffeinated beverages like coffee and tea. Today, the small-scale farmers and entrepreneurs of the AYA are harvesting, roasting and selling more than 10,000lb of yaupon each year while promoting sustainability and the beverage’s indigenous roots.
“Yaupon is a sad symbol of erasure, and I hope that in trying to revive it we can offer a way to remind people of what’s happened and create a little bit of correction,” said White. “We have a chance to do it the right way.”
In the spirit of producing yaupon through non-exploitative and environmentally conscious practices, Yaupon Brothers works with organisations to promote indigenous rights and involve them in the yaupon trade; Catspring Yaupon offers a rehabilitative employment initiative to help at-risk individuals; and Lost Pines collaborates with Texas conservation groups harvesting wild yaupon to promote biodiversity and mitigate forest fire danger.
“We understand that we didn’t invent yaupon,” said Falla, “but we hope that we can be stewards to share a beverage and its communal values that have been enjoyed and respected for thousands of years.”
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