Yaupon (pronounced YO-pon) is indigenous to southeast North America. Other names and spellings include youpon, cassina, North American Tea Plant, and the Christmas Berry tree. Yaupon's scientific name is Ilex vomitoria (more about this shocking name later). The plant grows like a bush and is in the holly family; technically, it is a perennial tree shrub with white flowers and red berries. Yaupon is similar and related to yerba mate (Ilex paraguariensis).
Yaupon is the only caffine-rich tea plant native to North America. In the 1500s and 1600s, and probably long before, Native Americans living in southeast North America made a drink from yaupon. In the late 1600s yaupon was a major part of south eastern North America Native American trade (Bartram in Meyer:1976; Kravitz 2000). The drink was described by Spanish and English colonists who called the beverage "black drink" (due to its dark color) or "te del indio."
Southeastern Native Americans used yaupon as a ceremonial beverage, in some cases traveling over two hundred miles to harvest the plant (Hale 1883). In many tribes yaupon was used during a purging/cleansing ceremony to induce vomiting, and this has been described-- pretty fantastically-- in several sources:
"They are three days taking it, eating nothing," "They who have drunk eject it, which they do readily and without pain."
(De Vaca, Cabeca: circa1530 near the Texas Gulf Coast)
In Florida, drinking large quantities of strongly brewed yaupon was used to test the strength of warriors:
"those who cannot keep it down, but whose stomachs reject it are not entrusted with any difficult commission or any military responsibility."
(Le Moyne de Morgues 1564 ,near the mouth of St. John's river on the Florida coast)
"...the warrior, by hugging his arms across his stomach, and leaning forward, disgorges the liquor in a large stream from his mouth."
(Fairbanks, in Hudson 1979:136)
These early accounts of yaupon made it seem as if the plant had emetic properties. However, during these ceremonies the tea was brewed into a thick, dark concoction, and the warriors had fasted for days. I imagine that large quantities of a strong brew of anything could be emetic after a fast. Still, accounts of this particular use of yaupon in the ceremonies was enough to dissuade many colonists and Europeans from trying it. It also got the plant its wince-inducing scientific name: Ilex vomitoria. Some have even commented that big tea companies from Europe may have suggested the name to dissuade colonists from wanting local yaupon, to preserve their export market. Francis Putz suggests that William Aiton-- the Scottish botanist who named yaupon "Ilex vomitoria" in the late 1700s, was a secret employee of Ceylon tea merchants (Putz 2010:2).
Colonists Reject Yaupon
Colonists drank yaupon tea, and in 1700, the tea was first brought to England. But over time, drinking yaupon became associated with being not wealthy enough to afford imported tea. Yaupon's use grew during the Civil War when imported goods were hard to come by, but decreased later when European teas were one again easy to find (Dunbar 1958:35).
A few commercial yaupon producers remained in existence (these can be confirmed on census records from the 1800s), and in the 19th century and early 20th century many people made yaupon for their own homes (Cynthia 1973; recalling making yaupon in c.1900; in Bauers 1997).
But since the 1950s nobody has made this tea available commercially. To revive this centuries-old beverage of the southern coast, Pat Garber-- a writer who lives on Ocracoke Island, N.C. for part of the year-- harvests yaupon and sells the tea on the island. This is also a tea that you can easily forage for yourself and make at home. Yaupon grows in southeastern North America and can be found in Florida, Texas, and North Carolina. A yaupon revival is happening on Ocracoke Island in North Carolina's Outer Banks. Yaupon grows all over Ocracoke, and can be found at Springer's Point. Yaupon has high anti-oxidant levels similar to blueberries. You can read more about yaupon's health benefits here.
Here is how to make your own yaupon tea:
If you want to make black tea (not green tea):
1. I find it easiest to pick larger branches of the tree, about one foot long.
2. rinse them to clean them
3. lightly dry them
4. rustle them in a bag to lightly bruise the leaves (for me, this usually happens in my bookbag when I transport the branches after picking them)
5. leave them for a few days to dry
6. continue drying them in a 200F oven, daily for about an hour, until they reach the darkness that you desire; or, hang the branches for months in a cool, dark place to cure.
7. remove the leaves from the branches; small twigs can be left in if desired-- historically, small twigs were an integral part of yaupon tea.
Black yaupon tea will finish looking something like this (and you could get them even darker, if desired):
Bauers, Barton M. (1997) HSJ 15(3):18.
Cynthia [no surname given]. (1973) Seachest. Cape Hatteras High School.
Catesby, Mark (1754) The Natural History of Florida and the Bahama Islands. 2:57 London
Dunbar, Gary. (1958) Historical Geography of the Outer Banks. Louisiana State University Press.
Dunes of Dare County Garden Club, Wildflower Identification Committee. (1980) Wildflowers of the Outer Banks, Kitty Hawk to Hatteras. Chapel Hill: UNC Press.
Fairbanks, Charles H. (1979) The Function of Black Drink among the Creeks. In Hudson.
Galle, Fred C. (1970) Hollies Native to the United States. American Horticultural Magazine.
Hale, P.M. (1883) Woods of North Carolina.
Hudson, Charles M., Ed. (1979) Black Drink, A Native American Tea. University of Georgia Press.
Kravitz, Linda. (2000) The Black Drink of the Outer Banks. Research paper on display at the Ocracoke Island Museum. North Carolina.
Meyer, Frederick C. (1976) Plant Cultivation in Colonial Gardens of the South. The Harvester. Spring Issue. Georgia Horticultural Society.
Putz, Francis E. Jack. (2010) Yaupon Tea has a Bad Name. The Gainesville Sun. 8 April 2010.