Text by Paula Dittrick, TMNCPC blogmaster. Photos by TMNCPC member Susie Doe and Paula Dittrick.
A recent Katy Prairie Conservancy Foraging Katy Prairie online talk by Mark “Merriwether” Vorderbruggen clarified what turns out to be a folks tale about Yaupon Holly (Ilex vomitoria). Despite the vomitoria part of the plant name, tea made from its leaves can be safely consumed, Vorderbruggen said.
The evergreen shrub is native to coastal areas stretching from Texas to Florida. The eastern range extends north to southern Virginia.
Female plants produce berries, actually drupes, that remain on the plant through fall and winter. Birds can eat the berries, which are toxic for humans. But the Yupon’s small dark green elliptical to oblong, slightly obovate leaves, which occur alternately on the stem, can be used to make tea.
Vorderbruggen said Native Americans and others have a history of drinking Yaupon Holly tea without getting sick. An Internet search shows there is a move by at least one company to market the tea.
Yaupon Holly leaves contain more caffeine by weight than both coffee beans and green tea and it has the highest caffeine content of any plant native to North America, said Wildedible.com.
Yaupon Holly tea is associated with a few names: the black drink, the white drink, or cassina. Naturalist William Bartram wrote about drinking it without mishap.
TMNCPC member Susie Doe suggests that whoever named the plant Ilex vomitoria had heard about a ceremony involving vomiting at which yaupon tea was drunk and falsely assumed the tea caused the vomiting. The name Yaupon is taken from the name given this plant by the Catawbans in North Carolina.
Doe notes the Ilex genus is comprised of many species. The Ilex vomitoria is a shrub while Ilex decidua (for which Possum Haw is one of many common names) is a small tree. Both species may grow in full sun or understory. Ilex opac, also known as American Holly, grows in East Texas.
Many of the garden hollies are non-natives or hybrids, again mostly of non-natives. A naturally occurring hybrid is Ilex X attenuate (cultivars of which are sold in the garden trade as Savannah Holly and Foster’s Holly), Doe said.