The Story of Yaupon
Discover Yaupon: America’s Native Tea
Yaupon tea has been getting a lot of buzz lately. With articles published by Atlas Obscura and NPR, this once little known plant has seen a resurgence in popularity. Recently, even the BBC featured an article about yaupon in their travel section, echoing what we already knew, that yaupon is a delicious, naturally caffeinated drink with a rich history in America.
For decades, yaupon has mostly been relegated to the status of yard plant, popular in the Southeastern United States for its hardiness and beautiful red berries, but now it’s once again being appreciated as a drink for its refreshing taste as well as its energizing and revitalizing effects.
Yaupon, a close cousin of yerba mate and guayusa, has been consumed in America for centuries. Its scientific name, Ilex vomitoria, while perhaps a little unfortunate and more than a little misleading, gives us clues to its natural history.
Ilex, the name of the genus to which yaupon belongs, is the botanical Latin name for holly. Both yerba mate and guayusa are also both plant species in Ilex, but the group also includes the holly you use to deck halls each Christmas.
The name vomitoria requires perhaps a bit more explanation. In fact, there’s even some division on how yaupon earned the moniker. One possible explanation is yaupon’s role in Native American purging ceremonies which used yaupon leaves as an ingredient in a concoction referred to as the black drink. Another possibility is that it is a reference to yaupon’s ability to suppress appetite.
Yaupon was also once known in botanical literature as Ilex cassine, a fitting name, because yaupon is commonly also referred to as ‘cassina’, but sadly for yaupon, the name was also applied to other species of holly in error. According to the rules of the botanical code, this made the name Ilex cassine invalid. And so the name Ilex vomitoria stuck.
Yaupon has long been considered medicine, healing and sacred. Spanish colonists in Florida learned of yaupon from the indigenous Timucua Indians in the 16th century. The next few hundred years saw it grow in popularity among European settlers in North America. Yaupon tea was even exported to England, where it was known as ‘Carolina tea’ and South sea tea. In France it was referred to ‘Appalachina’.
Despite its popularity during the 17th, 18th, and early 19th century, consumption of yaupon by non-native Americans and Europeans waned by the late 19th century. This was perhaps due to a marketing problem. The name Ilex vomitoria wasn’t appealing to consumers and the coffee industry capitalized on this.
Regardless of the bad PR yaupon may have received in the past, it’s making a comeback in the 21st century. There’s an undeniable appeal to being able to consume a caffeinated plant native to North America, one that can be harvested sustainably, and one whose rich history connects us with our past.
Palumbo, M.J., Talcott, S.T. & Putz, F.E. Ilex Vomitoria Ait. (Yaupon): A Native North American Source of a Caffeinated and Antioxidant-Rich Tea. Econ Bot 63, 130–137 (2009).
Schultes, R. THE CORRECT NAME OF THE YAUPON. Botanical Museum Leaflets, Harvard University, 14(4), 97-105. (1950).