Yaupon: America’s Forgotten Tea

Discover North America’s only native caffeine source, nearly lost to time and conquest.

  • Yaupon (Ilex vomitoria) grows abundantly in the southeastern United States from Virginia to Florida and west to Texas.
    Photo by Catspring Yaupon
  • The dense evergreen yaupon tree has shiny holly leaves and is often planted as a hedge.
    Photo by David Stang
  • Yaupon trees are drought tolerant, salt tolerant, and won't freeze as far north as Zone 7.
    Photo by Adobe Stock/Janelle
  • Yaupon's caffeine content is more than black tea but less than coffee.
    Photo by Catspring Yaupon
  • Yaupon's berries ripen in fall and attract birds, such as the American robin, into winter.
    Photo by Ken Thomas
  • For people living in the southeastern U.S., brewing yaupon means they can enjoy a local caffeinated beverage.
    Photo by Catspring Yaupon
  • The Timucuan introduced yaupon to French explorers in the Southeast during the late 1500s. The tribe's "black drink" ceremony involved consuming large quantities of liquid to stimulate ritualized vomiting.
    Photo by Jacques le Moyne
  • Ceramic beakers found at Cahokia (near present-day St. Louis) contain yaupon residue from the 11th century.
    Photo by Illinois State Archaeological Survey; University of Illinois; Champaign-Urbana
  • Thomas Emerson - director of Illinois State Archaeological Survey. With cup related to the use of the leaves of a holly tree in a drink used for ritual purification ceremonies.
    Photo by L. Brian Stauffer
  • Yaupon tea is available for purchase from online vendors, and can be served hot or iced.
    Photo by Catspring Yaupon

The Timucuan men sat in the public square sipping a hot, dark-colored liquid from carved seashell cups, discussing the weather, crops, and the latest news about their enemies upriver. They’d been at it for hours, and were buzzed from round after round of the caffeinated decoction. Morning passed into early afternoon like it had on a thousand other days in the Southeast, except for one thing: There were Frenchmen watching.

The Arrival of the French

Jacques le Moyne de Morgues, a French artist and a member of Jean Ribault’s expedition to the New World, depicted himself and his puffy-sleeved comrades in a sketch that he created about 1564 (see Page 85). This is the year he and 300 French Huguenots established the short-lived Fort Caroline near modern-day Jacksonville, Florida. To cement their new friendship, the local Timucua tribe offered the Frenchmen shells containing what Europeans called “black drink”  —  a dark-colored brew made by boiling and straining the leaves of the native yaupon holly (pronounced “yo-pawn”), and then shaking the resulting liquid until foamy. “It strengthens and nourishes the body, and yet does not fly to the head,” Le Moyne observed with awe. It was likely his first dose of caffeine.

Europeans in the 16th century often started the day with a mug of milk curdled with alcohol. When imported stimulants from the colonies became available, such as Chinese tea, African coffee, and South American cocoa and yerba maté, Europeans quickly gave up drinking alcoholic beverages all day long. Briefly, they also traded yaupon from the Colonies under the moniker “Carolina Tea.”

Yaupon Today

Fast forward to present day. Although yaupon’s caffeine content is more than black tea but less than coffee (similar to the now-popular yerba maté), few Americans realize they could be drinking something grown closer to home.

“I couldn’t really figure it out,” says Bryon White. “I thought maybe it didn’t taste good. I thought there had to be a reason people weren’t drinking it today.” When White and his brother Kyle founded Yaupon Brothers American Tea Co. in 2012, they were the first to sell yaupon since the 1970s, when a small café closed on the Outer Banks off the coast of North Carolina. The yaupon industry had lingered in this string of barrier islands from the days of the American Revolution. Later, during the Civil War, islanders supplied the caffeinated plant to cities blocked from importing tea and coffee. By 1903, though, a visitor to the islands was surprised to find an old man still at work layering yaupon leaves with hot stones in a barrel, a roasting process passed down from Native Americans. “I was under the impression the business was as extinct as the dodo,” Herbert Hutchinson Brimley wrote.

Yaupon the plant, on the other hand, was, and still is, easy to find. It grows abundantly on the sandy coastal plains from Virginia to Florida, and west to Texas. The dense evergreen tree has a tendency to stay low, which makes it a popular landscaping ornamental. With shiny holly leaves and red berries, yaupon is a splash of Christmas cheer in the winter landscape or, to Native Americans, a symbol of continual renewal.

2/22/2018 3:43:48 PM

If you want to use your own leaves and twigs to make Black Drink, you have to roast them first. Do NOT make the tea out of green leaves. The everyday use of Black Drink was limited since among many Native Americans, special permission to brew it had to be obtained from the village chief. For the Apalachee of North Florida it was an essential component of their ritual ball game and could only be made and served to men in the council house. The association with "pagan" rituals meant the the Spanish friaries actively suppressed the use of the drink as did other Christian groups in other parts of the Southeast.



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