Yaupon, The Original Southern Tea

Yaupon, The Original Southern Tea

By / Life on the Island / Monday, 19 December 2016 05:00

Walk into any department store between now and the end of the year and you are sure to see holiday adornments of evergreen, with the famed “Christmas holly” taking its rightful place of prominence. Take a hike in one of our Pleasure Island State Parks (Carolina Beach State Park and Fort Fisher State Recreation Area) and you are sure to encounter a thicket of yaupon holly. The amazing story of this holly may rival that of nearly any of our native plants, including those of a carnivorous nature.
American Holly - The “Christmas holly” that we are so familiar with is indeed the American Holly, or Ilex opaca for us nerdy scientific name kind of folks. It has to be considered the best known holly due to its “holly-day” tie-ins and the fact that it is found widely throughout North America. The familiar deep green, leathery leaves with their wavy and spiny margins are recognizable to most even without the iconic red berries that set off this mandatory Christmas favorite. The American holly can grow to 50’ tall and has a very whitish wood that lends to the naming of the species, opaca. The holly of Roman times was the sacred plant of Saturn and was used during the Roman Saturnalia festivals to honor this god. As a means of avoiding persecution, early Christians followed suit and decked their homes with hollies during pagan festivities. As Christian populations grew over generations, plants like holly and mistletoe gradually lost their pagan meanings to these people and became symbolic of Christmas instead.
Yaupon Holly - Yaupon holly, or Ilex vomitoria, is much less noticeable than American holly and is a more southeastern species. Mainly inhabiting the coastal plain region, yaupon is adapted to many soil types, though tending to favor sandy sites. It can tolerate shade and has a mild tolerance for salt spray. Yaupon actually means “little tree” in the Catawba Indian language and indeed this perennial evergreen is capable of small tree status up to about 30’ under ideal conditions. More commonly than not in our area it’s shrubby and tends to form dense, under canopy thickets often with individual plants ranging anywhere from waist-high to just over head-high. Yaupon’s shiny, green leaves alternate on the stem and have just the slightest serration to form a wavy margin with an absence of noticeable prickles. Yaupon holly, like all hollies, is dioecious; thus having separate male and female plants. Each plant produces either functionally male flowers or functionally female flowers. Twigs of the female yaupon holly bear beautiful, translucent red berries that are just over BB-size and persist throughout the winter in most areas. These berries are sought by a variety of song and game birds, and even small mammals, but the real story is steeped in those caffeine-rich leaves.
Dahoon Holly - You see, in all of the native vegetative species found throughout North America, only the yaupon holly and its very close relative dahoon holly (Ilex cassine) has appreciable amounts of naturally occurring caffeine. Dahoon has much lower amounts of caffeine (barely enough to count), but higher amounts of theobromine, the stuff in cocoa and dark chocolate that increases heart rate and helps lower blood pressure. We’ve all enjoyed chocolate euphoria before, right?  Tea brewed using dahoon is said to be more like green tea. Dahoon has yellow to red berries that are larger than yaupon’s and are seen on the shrub through the winter. In North Carolina, dahoon holly is found only in New Hanover and Brunswick counties. At Carolina Beach State Park, it may be found along the edges of the Cypress Pond and in the damper sections of the new Fitness Trail, around the Dahoon Pond, naturally.
Native Americans knew of the presence of stimulants in the hollies through their regular consumption of tea made from the leaves of the yaupon. Spanish missionaries in 1565 were some of the first Europeans to sample this “Indian tea”, and documented that it was actually comparable in taste to tea from Asia. In 1573, Spanish Naval officer Pedro Menendez apparently made peace with a tribe of Indians by delivering them a yaupon plant that did not grow in their region. Menendez wrote that the prized offering was, “the greatest gift that can be made to them.” A priest also of Spanish origins reported from Florida in 1615, “There is no Spaniard or Indian who does not drink it in the morning or evening.” English settlers of Carolina were said to drink the “Indian Tea” daily. While yaupon is indeed a plant of the Coastal Plain, but its richness as a tea provided reason for the indigenous peoples to travel hundreds of miles for a decoction of yaupon leaves. In 1791, famed Philadelphia botanist William Bartram noted in his writings that the Cherokee of western North Carolina had obtained yaupon and it was under active pruning and cultivation. Ornately decorated shells, specifically whelk shells used to drink yaupon tea, have been found many miles from the coast. Yaupon biomarkers have been sampled in the residue of drinking vessels dating as far back as 1050, at the pre-Columbian settlement of Cahokia, across the Mississippi River from the modern city of St. Louis.
So let’s get back to vomitoria. Much can be gleaned from scientific naming of a plant or animal, and it doesn’t require a deep knowledge of Latin or even a botanical degree for the specific name of vomitoria to just jump off the page and hit you in the face. Most have experienced the misfortune of this unpleasant bodily function, but why attach the name to a lovely green shrub that produces a typical, everyday caffeinated beverage rivaling the best that Asia could offer? The Cherokee called it “the beloved tree” for goodness sake. Could it be that the large tea companies of Europe sought to preserve their export markets by dissuading colonists from opting for the local yaupon tea, even to the point of influencing the naming with a most unfortunate scientific name? The scientific name was given by royal botanist, William Aiton, who never actually set foot in America. He answered to King George III himself and some have speculated that it was given so that the world’s first multinational corporation, the East India Company, could preserve its stranglehold on the world’s tea trade. Speculation sure. Unfortunate name recognition, definitely.
While containing copious amounts of caffeine, yaupon is not a diuretic and when lightly-brewed, is largely free of the coloration and bitterness that is often imparted by organic material known as tannins. When political council, religious ceremony, threat of war or even a high stakes ball game deemed it necessary however, yaupon could be boiled and prepared intentionally in such a way to produce a darker, stronger, frothy tea known as “the Black Drink” to Europeans because of its outward appearance and probably the projective vomiting it produced. To the Indians, even in their own language, it was the “White Drink”. White was the color of purity and they saw the ultimate of purification resulting from extensive purging. Naturalist Mark Catesby wrote in his 1743 masterwork, The Natural History of Carolinas, Florida and the Bahama Islands, of witnessing spring purging ceremonies while describing a drink that, “restores the appetite and strengthens the stomach”.
European accounts noted the dried and parched yaupon leaves that were boiled in large, ceramic vessels. After cooling the liquid was agitated or shaken until it frothed. This special ceremonial drink was taken only by the adult men of high rank and status, and only after a long period of fasting. Consuming large quantities of the drink was followed by bouts of ritual vomiting. Some accounts discuss the literal projectile vomiting as giving the performer some higher level of cleansing, while others say that participants could move up the council ranks based on their abilities to maintain a calm disposition. Again, no emetic or laxative effect is produced from the drink alone, but days and days of fasting before partaking would most likely make even the strongest of stomachs weak and unable to hold the beverage down. Such was the case of Billy Powell. You may not know of Billy Powell, but perhaps the name of “Osceola” from his fame as Seminole Indian resistance fighter is more familiar. A Creek Indian from his homeland of Alabama, Osceola joined the Seminoles in Florida, fighting against the US Government’s removal efforts under Andrew Jackson. His name alone spoke to his great success in moving up the tribal leadership ladder, becoming a respected councilman and apparently being one who could hold his yaupon. Osceola is anglicized Creek for “Asi-Yahola”, or literally “Yaupon Singer”, “Black Drink Singer” or “Shouter of Black Drink”. Amazingly, one of the most well-known Native Americans in our history traces his name to a diminutive little holly.
Yaupon tea is North America’s version of Yerba Mate which is derived from Ilex paraguariensis. Yerba Mate is extremely popular drink of Brazil, Uruguay, Paraguay with its popularity rivaling even tea and coffee. Yerba is seen more frequently in the United States today as an ingredient in many popular energy drinks. In America, even w/ the scientific name vomitoria, yaupon has had a place as a drink, but usually only for a short time. During the time of the Revolutionary War, the American Civil War and even World War I, yaupon tea was imbibed as a cheap alternative to expensive or impossible to get, English teas or coffee. After the American Revolution, yaupon drink was popular into the early 1800’s until falling from favor with the wider availability of coffee. During the Civil War, Southerners in particular drunk chicory as a substitute for coffee and yaupon as a substitute for more expensive English or Asian Teas. Over time the drinking of yaupon tea was associated with an inability to afford imported caffeine drinks. Even concerted efforts of Congress and the USDA, during and after World War I when coffee prices soared, failed to enable yaupon to stick in the American Culture. Cassina-flavored soft drinks, teas and even ice creams were marketed by the government to no avail. Who knows what may have happened with a better marketing? Yaupon or cassine, in some form or fashion, could have made it to the popular culture parlance just as we know Pepsi, Dr. Pepper or Coca-Cola today, if not for that unfortunate connotation to regurgitation.
Today, similar to the explosion of craft breweries, craft tea merchants have sprung up across the nation. Several small start-ups expound on the potential for yaupon, thanks to its wonderful drinkability and uniquely North American source of caffeine. Florida botanist Dr. William Morrill advised in a 1940 writing that the best yaupon tea is a made using equal mix of chopped brown, dry-roasted leaves and chopped green leaves. Roasting imparts some rich flavor, while removing moisture from the leaf, making for better water solubility and release of higher levels of caffeine.
One can make a brew of yaupon tea with just a few simple steps.
• Pick a few green Yaupon leaves and small stems (reminder that the removal of plant material not allowed in state parks)
• Lightly toast in the oven @ 300F until leaves begin to brown.
• Take one tablespoon of leaves/stems and add boiling water.
• Seep for 3 minutes or more. Add lemon, honey or a mint sprig.

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