Yaupon Tree

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Photo by Getty/TStuard

Before the European conquest of North America yaupon, or Indian black tea, was a valuable commodity; indigenous people travelled long distances to harvest its leaves. The mystery is why it is not widely known and consumed these days.

Yaupon is a common small evergreen, a brother to yerba maté and holly, with prickly leaves and dense clusters of translucent red berries. It grows easily in the sandy coastal plains along the Gulf of Mexico from Texas to Florida and has few, if any, insect pests, probably on account of the caffeine it contains.

Illustration by Lucille Clerc

It was that caffeine, in the yaupon tea brewed by the Timucua and other indigenous American tribes, that made the tree so important to them. Most cultures have developed caffeine rituals, ranging from the therapeutic cuppa, via the hand-crafted coffee craze and African kola swaps, to elaborate ceremonies of tea preparation and consumption. In some Native American cultures, men frequently shared yaupon tea as a sign of peaceful intention. It also featured in big, culturally signi?cant gatherings, with music, dancing and black tea quaffed from conch shells.

Illustration by Lucille Clerc

Now the yaupon story becomes a little strange. Among indigenous peoples of North and South America, a common means of ritual purging and puri?cation was vomiting, which would have been a frequent sight at religious ceremonies. Given the ubiquity of black tea, Europeans incorrectly linked yaupon with throwing up and gave it the charming name vomitoria. In fact, yaupon is no more emetic than tea or coffee. The vomiting might have been a learned skill – or perhaps black tea was cut with other drugs – but the reputation stuck. The Europeans’ distaste was ampli?ed by their association of the drink with the ceremonies of a subjugated (or dead) people. With that kind of PR, how could yaupon compete with professionally marketed tea and coffee? Excepting a brief spell during which the Spanish ran short of coffee, it never took off with European invaders or their descendants.

Illustration by Lucille Clerc

Yaupon is due a marketing makeover. Readily cultivated and a viable alternative to tea and coffee, it tastes a little like oolong and does well in blind tastings against yerba maté and other infusions. It’s sold locally as ‘cassina’ – a café-culture rebranding with a mid-European feel, except that the word is itself almost all that’s left of the now-extinct Timucua tribe.


Cover Illustration by Lucille Clerc. Cover Courtesy of Laurence King Publishing.

More from Around the World in 80 Trees:


Excerpted from Around the World In 80 Trees by Jonathan Drori Copyright © 2018 by Jonathan Drori. Excerpted by permission of Laurence King Publishing Ltd. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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