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Fredonia, New York

Native Caffeine: Yaupon Holly

Herbal Writing & Recipes

For educational purposes only. These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. These products are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.

Native Caffeine: Yaupon Holly

Sarah Sorci

After last month’s booze-themed post, a caffeine kick feels appropriate. 
Yaupon holly (Ilex vomitoria) is a plant I was thrilled to meet and giddily harvest along the coast of Georgia. I’ve raved to many a friend about its status as the only caffeinated plant native to North America. In fact, Yaupon has more caffeine by weight than both coffee and green tea.  (While that may sound like a lot, note the larger volume of a pound of dried leaves, compared to a pound of heavier coffee beans.) It is closely related to South America’s yerba maté (Ilex paraguariensis).
Like the green, black, white and oolong teas from Camellia sinensis, Yaupon is high in antioxidants. However, it is relatively low in tannins, giving it a less bitter, mellower flavor than other teas. Yaupon offers a range of health benefits, including digestive support. A Texas A&M study demonstrated the role its anti-inflammatory compounds can play in the inhibition of colon cancer. 
Yaupon’s botanical name, vomitoria, comes from its ceremonial use by native people of the southeast. The men would drink a very strong brew, and he who could hold it down the longest was trusted with special tasks. Native folks also prepared an everyday (i.e., more agreeable) drink from Yaupon’s leaves and twigs. During the Civil War, the Union hoarded coffee, sending its prices skyrocketing from 20 cents to $60 per pound. Caffeine-deprived southerners were lucky to have Yaupon in their backyard as a substitute.  It remained a popular drink into the late 1800s. Today, we all know which plant is America’s true caffeinated love.
I found this thicket-forming shrub growing abundantly near Savannah, GA, and into northern Florida. It can be found as far north as Virginia, and from Arkansas to Texas. Yaupon thrives in ecosystems that other plants might consider harsh—sand dunes along the ocean, swamps, and sandy woods and forest edges. Due to its native status, it is pest-resistant, highly drought-tolerant, and overall low-maintenance when planted where it “belongs.” These qualities, plus its proximity compared to imported coffee and tea, make it the best caffeine choice in terms of sustainability. Sourcing from US growers and sustainable wild-harvesters seems like a fine economic and social justice choice, too.