Yaupon Holly, Ilex vomitoria, is the only Native American plant that contains caffeine, and drinking the tea is a lost art that is recently making a comeback. Yaupon tea is a tisane, or herbal infusion. It is not a true tea like that of the Chinese black tea, Camelia sinensis. Yaupon grows throughout East Texas like an undesirable weed. The shrub-size to tree-size plant can be found in pine, hardwood, and mixed forests. It is a menace for pine plantation owners. After thinning a stand of timber, yaupon often takes advantage of the light that reaches the forest floor. The berries are a favorite food of birds, who spread the seeds in their bird droppings. It doesn’t take long for these seeds to find their way onto open ground. In 2-3 years the mature plants can take over the understory and grow to be between 12-45 feet tall, with 25 feet being most common height. In the event of a wildfire, it is a ladder fuel that can allow the fire to move into the canopy of the forest and spread from one tree crown to another. Though a native to the southern states of North America, it is considered a noxious or invasive plant.
As a drink, yaupon tea is becoming popular in cities like Austin, TX because of its potential to provide a more environmentally-friendly replacement for coffee. It even reduces the need for importing Chinese tea. Some enterprising individuals have created companies that will remove the pesky yaupon from your property and at the same time harvest leaves to be sold commercially. But the Austin-ites aren’t the first to discover yaupon’s usefulness. Native Americans called yaupon tea, “Black Drink,” and early tribes drank it gluttonously during a ceremonial purging or “cleansing ritual,” which caused them to vomit. This scene, as described by European observers, lead to the species name for the plant, vomitoria. However, in moderate amounts, the drink is safe to consume. In later reports, the tribes used the drink as part of social and communal gatherings. It gave energy and alertness before important decisions were made. The scientific name has made it somewhat difficult to commercially market the tea, but scientists say that it does not have emetic properties. Actually, according to an article from NPR, Steve Talcott, a professor of food chemistry at Texas A&M University, says it is rich in polyphenols, which are antioxidants. While it is the only North American plant that contains caffeine, the caffeine content is comparable to green and black tea. The caffeine is still quite addictive. As noted in the book, Black Drink: A Native American Tea, it was often drank by early Spanish settlers in America. “In 1615 Father Francísco Ximénez…reported that it was drunk first thing in the morning and that ‘there is no Spaniard or Indian who does not drink it every day in the morning and evening . . . it is more of a vice than [hot] chocolate in New Spain.'”
Foraging for wild edible plants is a practice that was largely forgotten, but has risen in popularity, especially with help from local experts who often teach classes in plant identification, medicinals or herbalism, and foraging. Many books and blogs have been written by homesteading and gardening enthusiasts, who recognize the importance of living off the land. It has become a movement for, environmentalists, preppers, dieters, organic growers, chefs, and those who simply wish to get back to nature. Foraging for yaupon is especially easy because it is so readily available and no one minds if you harvest it! Examples of experts on the subject include 1) Mark “Merriwether” Vorderbruggen, who teaches foraging classes throughout the state is the author of the informative website “Foraging Texas” and the book Idiot’s Guide: Foraging 2) Charles Allen, of Allen Acres Bed & Breakfast in Pitkin Louisiana, teaches classes on plant identification and foraging in East Texas/Western Louisiana and co-authored the book Edible Plants of the Gulf South, and 3) and the two person team consisting of Eric M. Knight and Stacy M. Coplin, who teach foraging classes at the Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center in Austin, TX and authored the book Falcon Guides: Foraging Texas.
Before you make your own Yaupon Tea, be sure you have the correct plant! Chinese Privet (Ligustrum sinense), an invasive, exotic, ornamental bush with fragrant flowers, looks similar to Yaupon. Chinese Privet has opposite leaves and smooth “leaf margins” – botanical term for leaf edges. Yaupon’s leaves alternate on the stem and have “small, round-toothed leaf margins” (referred to in botany as “crenulate.”) Chinese Privet is known for its fragrant flowers in spring. Yaupon is known for its bright-red berries in fall. Do not eat the berries! Both are wonderful for birds, but toxic to humans.
So, how is the tea made? Yaupons leaves are plucked off the stem and can be used fresh, dried, or roasted before brewing. Tea made from fresh or dried leaves tastes more like green tea. Roasting the leaves gives the drink a smoky flavor is said to be very similar to yerba maté (the South American equivalent, made from Ilex paraguariensis). Native American tribes roasted the leaves (also referred to as parching or blanching) in a pan over the fire. Today, most people prefer to roast leaves in the oven at 350°F for 10-15 minutes. Once roasted, the leaves will turn from green to brown. A few blackened leaves will not affect the flavor. Grind the crispy leaves using any method you prefer: mortar and pestle, coffee grinder, or herb grinder. Backpackers and bushcrafters use the old Indian method by grinding with a rock. At this point, your tea leaves can be stored in an airtight jar for later use. If you’re ready to taste it now, add 1 tsp per cup of hot water and let steep for 5 minutes. Longer steeping will result in a stronger tea. Lost Pine Yaupon Tea company claims that boiling or simmering the decoction for a little while will enhance the flavor and bring out the stimulating effects of the caffeine and theobromine (the feel good relative of caffeine found in cacao). The original Black Drink was thought to have other herbs added to it and the recipe varied by tribe. When you are finished simmering, allow the tea leaves to fall to the bottom and decant the top liquid into a mug. Enjoy hot or iced and feel free to add milk or your favorite sweetener. This drink provides energy that is jitter free, long lasting and without the coffee crash.
Yaupon Tea Instructions:
- Remove leaves from stem.
- Roast in oven at 350°F for 10-15 minutes until brown to almost black.
- Add 1 tsp dried or roasted leaves to hot water and simmer for 5 minutes.
- Add other herbs as desired.
- Allow tea leaves to settle and decant top liquid.
- Add milk or sweetener as desired.
- Drink hot or pour over ice.
Here’s The Buzz On America’s Forgotten Native ‘Tea’ Plant by Murray Carpenter https://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2015/08/04/429071993/heres-the-buzz-on-americas-forgotten-native-tea-plant
How To Make Yaupon Tea For A Delicious Alternative To Coffee by Morgan Rogue May 14, 2020 https://insteading.com/blog/yaupon-tea/
The Black Drink Bungle by Samuel Steinberger https://givemeweirddrinks.substack.com/p/the-black-drink-bungle-d03?s=r
Lost Pines Yaupon. Brewing Strong Yaupon https://lostpinesyaupontea.com/blogs/blog/brewing-strong-yaupon-in-the-traditional-way
Walter Reeves: The Georgia Gardener. Yaupon Holly – Make Tea From Leaves https://www.walterreeves.com/landscaping/yaupon-holly-make-tea-from-leaves/
Wild Edible. Yaupon holly (Ilex vomitoria) – how to forage by Eric Orr https://www.wildedible.com/wild-food-guide/yaupon-holly
The Spruce Eats. Yaupon Tea by Linnea Covington. May, 21, 2021. https://www.thespruceeats.com/yaupon-tea-5097556
Brain Stimulants: Mate http://www.ethnoherbalist.com/ Accessed May 27, 2022
Healthline. What Is Yaupon Tea, And Does It Have Benefits https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/yaupon-tea#downsides
Black Drink: A Native American Tea (2004) by Charles M. Hudson, compiled by William Sturtevant
Falcon Guides: Foraging Texas (2021) by Eric M. Knight and Stacy M. Coplin
Idiot’s Guides: Foraging (2015) by Mark “Merriwether” Vorderbruggen
Edible Plants of the Gulf South (2005) by Charles M. Allen, Andrew W. Allen, and Harry H. Winters
Disclaimer: When foraging, please note that it is vitally important to be sure that you have identified the plant correctly and prepared it correctly. Not doing so can result in illness or death. Side effects of ingesting large amounts of caffeine include digestive issues, anxiety, irritability, changes in heart rate, increased urination, and insomnia. Severe cases may experience disorientation, heart problems, seizures, and psychosis. When using herbal infusions, please consult with your health care provider to determine if there are any interactions with medications you may be taking.