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Yaupon Tea, America's First Caffeinated Beverage

Caffeine fiend, forager, and science nerd currently in South Florida.


The US consumes 75% of the coffee grown on earth. Americans buy 146 billion cups per year. 33% of Americans under 45 spend more on coffee than they save for rainy days, like forced retirement. Without knowing, many pass by a free source of caffeine on the way to give more hard-earned money to a billionaire coffee magnate. The source of that free caffeine is the underappreciated yaupon holly plant.

Few remember that we have our own unique and excellent source of caffeine growing wild, from Florida north to Virginia and Maryland, from the east coast as far west as Texas and Oklahoma. Native Americans named the drink made from the yaupon holly tree cassina or asi. European settlers watched them drink it and called it Black Drink.

More About Yaupon and Its Cultural Roots from an Expert

The map below shows where yaupon holly grows in the wild. The archeological evidence of yaupon tea drinking dates back conservatively to 1000BC and has been found many hundreds of miles outside the plant's growing zones. This and that green dot on the map down in Mexico representing yaupon that was cultivated there in Aztec times, suggests that the pre-Columbian inhabitants of what is now the American South participated in a complex, far-reaching, and vibrant trading network long before Europeans arrived.

Yaupon Was Probably the Main Ingredient in The Black Drink, but Perhaps not the Only One.

Notice that a couple of the participants depicted here aren't feeling well. Then again when I drink a lot of caffeine on an empty stomach...

Notice that a couple of the participants depicted here aren't feeling well. Then again when I drink a lot of caffeine on an empty stomach...

The scientific name, Ilex vomitoria, is a bit of a puzzle, in no way reflecting the properties or the taste of the tea. It may refer to the poisonous berries. The mention of vomit in the name also may have originated in the stories early settlers told about its extreme ceremonial uses. Some now even believe the name was a plot in England's scientific circles to protect England's lucrative tea trade.

What we do know for certain is that the unfortunate name soured a lot of local enthusiasm for drinking yaupon tea. Wealthy landowners in the South wanted fashionable luxuries, including coffees and teas not named after vomit. Yaupon fell out of favor with the middle class, too, who didn't want to be caught drinking the same drink as the itinerant poor, indentured dirt farmers, and slaves.

During the Civil War, yaupon tea became popular again even among landed gentry because it was difficult to find anything else to drink. After a long and bloody war, Southerners must have associated yaupon tea with fighting, misery, starvation, the smell of death, and the taste of bitter defeat. Those with means returned to the luxuries of imported teas and coffees, flavors they doubtlessly grew up taking for granted, but now associated with all that was lost to them in war.

Yaupon became popular again during the Great Depression. After that, its use as a tea was all but forgotten except by native Americans who kept their traditions even during times of great hardship, and by some tough old souls on Ocracoke Island, North Carolina, where the tea has always been popular. Last time I checked I still could order up a yaupon sweet tea to wash down the excellent fresh seafood.

There was another short revival of yaupon tea in the 60's and 70's. At that time, folks were keenly rediscovering all sorts of herbs.

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Right now, is a great time to resurrect this fine old uniquely American tradition for a new generation. Here is a chance to declare independence from foreign tea again, and at least cut back a little on all that foreign coffee-drinking.

A robin feeding in a female weeping yaupon tree.

A robin feeding in a female weeping yaupon tree.

Birds safely eat the beautiful red and yellow berries which are poisonous to humans. The male plants don't produce berries at all and are a much safer option to grow around little kids.

Due to popularity as an ornamental plant, many people living outside its growing zone may find it at their local plant nursery if not already mixed in with their existing landscaping. With a little care and know-how, a yaupon holly can make a great container tree for a deck or patio area or a gorgeous houseplant in a big sunny window.

A beautiful bonsai version of the dwarf variety of yaupon holly.

A beautiful bonsai version of the dwarf variety of yaupon holly.

Making yaupon tea is easy, but also an art. Once you try the basic recipe, you'll want to experiment. Tweak it by roasting the tea lighter or darker to suit your taste. Try adding more or less prepared tea to your pot, until it tastes just right. You might like roasting it dark and brewing it in a french press. I prefer icing it down in a big pitcher with a sprig of fresh rosemary. It all tastes great though!

Reasons to try Yaupon Tea

  • Aside from the caffeine, the leaves are a natural source of theobromine the substance found in cocoa and chocolate. Yaupon is full of antioxidants and the good polyphenols. It also acts as an anti-inflammatory.
  • Yaupon leaves have no tannins which can make strong regular tea taste bitter. That means you can boil it down or add as many leaves as you like, and still drink a smooth, mellow brew.
  • If you have a soda machine, how about a soft drink version?
  • Even if you have to buy the tea online, you're still helping support the families, livelihoods, and dreams of other hard-working Americans. Let's not trade helping neighbors for all the tea in China.

How to Make Yaupon Tea

I can't think of anything with poisonous leaves that easily might be mistaken for yaupon holly, but better safe than not. Ask an expert to confirm your id first. I wash the leaves thoroughly a couple of times with a drop of vinegar in the water. Even though I don't use commercial pesticides to garden, I' m paranoid enough about air pollution, germs, insects, bird poop- you name it.

When the leaves are clean and spun in the salad spinner, I toss them into my cast iron skillet or large wok, set the stove-top to a medium temperature and stir them around with a wooden spoon as they dry out, curl up, and turn golden. That is when I'm done. I transfer them immediately out of the hot pan into a clean bowl and keep stirring to cool them down rapidly. Toasting solves solubility issues. More caffeine transfers into the hot water.

Once cool, I break up any big bits, fill up my trusty tea ball with my freshly made yaupon tea inside, and place the tea ball into my empty teapot. Then I put the kettle on, pour boiling water over the tea ball, and let the tea steep for about five minutes give or take. Now I'll have a cup.

If I don't have somewhere to be, I'll keep drinking it throughout the morning. But if there is some left, I'll put that into the refrigerator in a glass container with a lid. I'll keep it for a couple of days. After that, I will feed it to a plant, but never to my dog. Theobromine is poison for her just like chocolate is.

The oval leaves are gently serrated. Berries may be red, yellow, or absent.

The oval leaves are gently serrated. Berries may be red, yellow, or absent.

By the way, you can drink tea from the leaves of any native Ilex, but only Ilex vomitoria and its cultivars contain significant levels of caffeine. As far as I know, yaupon is the only high caffeine-producing plant native to North America. That doesn't mean we aren't surrounded by others. We just don't know enough yet about the vast natural bounty that blesses all of us.


Besarien (author) from South Florida on September 13, 2019:

Thank you for stopping by, DDE. Your comments have made my day! I hope you taste some yaupon tea someday!

Devika Primić from Dubrovnik, Croatia on September 12, 2019:

New information to me and a well-researched hub on this topic. Yaupon tea is unique and would like to try this tea.

Besarien (author) from South Florida on August 31, 2019:

Great comment, Techygran! Yes, that seems to be how things work. There was a time when Europeans tossed lobsters (and probably a lot of other tasty critters) back into the sea.

Cynthia Zirkwitz from Vancouver Island, Canada on August 29, 2019:

Interesting. Your article twigged a thought that the unpopular becomes commercially popular when the affluent in a society think they have stumbled across something unheard of and begin to market it. At one time coconut oil was boycotted and used mainly for making soap, and then, suddenly, it is THE oil to use. I know that the poor suffer over and over because of the power in the hands of the rich who think nothing of taking over what little they have. I am happy that there are people (folks) who preserve the folk traditions and medicines with no desire for recompense or fame over the ages... they are the wise.

Besarien (author) from South Florida on August 24, 2019:

Hi Mel! Thank you, I really appreciate your comment. Beyond yaupon leaves, I know that Civil War soldiers tried making "coffees" out of all sorts of stuff including poisonous plants and sawdust. Two of the more successful substitutes back then were toasted rye which many soldiers claimed tasted like coffee, and chicory root which is still added to coffee in New Orleans. There is a European coffee substitute on the market that combines the two. Chicory eases joint pain and boosts the immune system- nice added benefits for the soldiers who drank it. Thanks again for your very kind words. Hopefully you'll get to try yaupon tea one day. Who knows? It might become trendy.

Mel Carriere from Snowbound and down in Northern Colorado on August 24, 2019:

I was not aware of this plant and its benefits, although I have read the Civil War stories about people deprived of South American coffee because of the blockade making makeshift coffee out of native plants.

Great idea, but living in California I doubt I will try it. Wonderful hub, superbly written.

Besarien (author) from South Florida on August 04, 2019:

A sturdy holly is great self-defense. I wonder how many people would be saving a ton of money if they knew Yaupon was growing right under their window?

Thanks for your wonderful comment. Just came in from gardening. It feels like working under a hot wet blanket here in S. Florida today. Going to take you up on the ice water idea on my way to my well-deserved shower.

C E Clark from North Texas on August 03, 2019:

Very informative, and thorough, and well written as always. I knew nothing at all about this tea previously.

I don't know what kind of hollies we have here in the south, but they're great for planting under windows etc., to keep burglars out. I don't know if they're the right kind to make tea out of . . .

I'm not a tea, coffee, alcohol, or soda pop drinker. Ice water is my favorite thing, but I do like fruit juice once in a while. Unfortunately fruit juice is full of sugar. I know a lot of people think the natural sugar in fruit juice is ok, but diabetics like myself, know all sugar is treated the same by the human body, and it's not good when you're diabetic.

But for people who like their coffee or tea, and that would seem to be the majority, this sounds like a great way to make tea. Excellent article!

Besarien (author) from South Florida on August 02, 2019:

Hi Denise! Personally I like it as well as black or green tea though it is distinctly different. I do love that I've got my own source of caffeine in a container on the property now. My plant is still too little to do much harvesting but hopefully that will change in a year or two. I hope you find some!

Denise McGill from Fresno CA on August 02, 2019:

I'm in California and have never heard of it or seen any. I may have to see if there is some online because I'm really interested in trying it. Thanks for the information.



Besarien (author) from South Florida on July 16, 2019:

Hi Linda! You may be too far north to find the plants at a nursery. You could try the internet. I know a websites sell tea bags. It is a different beverage experience from mate and guyusa. I hope you can find some.

Linda Crampton from British Columbia, Canada on July 15, 2019:

This is a very interesting and informative article. I've never heard of yaupon tea before. I'd love to try some. I'll see if it's available where I live.

Besarien (author) from South Florida on July 12, 2019:

Hey Scott! Thanks for dropping by! I should probably put up a link for convenience sake even though I'm not monetizing. I'll remember to do that next time I edit. Sorry I didn't think of it. I hope you find some.

promisem on July 12, 2019:

I'm a big tea drinker, especially teas without caffeine, so your article caught my attention. I see it's available on Amazon, and I'll definitely check it out!

Besarien (author) from South Florida on July 06, 2019:

Good to see you too Nell Rose! Thank you so much for taking the time to comment.

Some people are really sensitive to caffeine. My husband can't drink any after 10 am or he doesn't sleep at night. My biggest problem with caffeine has always been crawling out of bed to make a pot.

Nell Rose from England on July 05, 2019:

My brother always drinks decaffeinated coffee and tea. He says it stops him getting palpitations! Interesting stuff, and good to see you!

Besarien (author) from South Florida on July 04, 2019:

Thanks Paula! I hope you get to try some!

Suzie from Carson City on July 03, 2019:

Hello Besarian....Thanks so much for the new info about a tea I'm hoping to find. I'm always ready to try something new, especially if it is known to have healthy properties. I'm basically a coffee lady....big time. Now & then, a cup of herbal tea is a very nice treat. Peace, Paula

Besarien (author) from South Florida on July 03, 2019:

Hi Billy! Thank you for your comment. I'm happy to share something from my neck of the woods.

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on July 03, 2019:

Very interesting and totally new to me. Thanks for the information.

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