Yaupon Tree

Used to make a signature black tea by Native Americans, yaupon’s appeal as a caffeinated drink rose and fell due to an unfortunate name given to it by Europeans.

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 significant gatherings, with music, dancing and black tea quaffed from conch shells.

Illustration by Lucille Clerc



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