America’s Own ‘Tea’ Plant

Yaupon growing in the wild in east Texas. This evergreen holly was once valuable to Native American tribes in the Southeastern U.S., which made a brew from its caffeinated leaves. PHOTO: Murray Carpenter for NPR

Yaupon growing in the wild in east Texas. This evergreen holly was once valuable to Native American tribes in the Southeastern U.S., which made a brew from its caffeinated leaves. PHOTO: Murray Carpenter for NPR

Thanks to RAXA Collective’s India operations, specifically in Kerala, there has been no dearth of stories on tea here. Tea’s takeover of the table finds space here. While our travels allow us to bring you tea experiences from across the world. Follow a seed to cup journey in Thailand here. Also be sure of how the iced variety is slowly taking over the world. Now NPR creates some buzz with a piece on North America’s forgotten ‘tea’ plant, probably the only plant from the continent known to contain caffeine.

Yaupon — a tree abundant in its native range, from coastal North Carolina to East Texas — contains caffeine and has a remarkable history.

A thousand years ago, Native American traders dried, packed and shipped the leaves all the way to Cahokia, the ancient mound city near the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi rivers. Native Americans sometimes used it in purification rituals involving purging (this led to its Latin name, Ilex vomitoria — a misnomer, because yaupon is not an emetic). Traveling through North Carolina in 1775, the naturalist William Bartram said Cherokees called yaupon “the beloved tree.” Early settlers even exported yaupon to Europe.

But yaupon was eventually elbowed aside by what purists call true tea — made from the leaves of the Asian shrub Camellia sinensis. (Technically, yaupon is an herbal infusion.) “There is a lost art of preparing yaupon tea because there are so many years between the Native American use of yaupon tea and our modern use of yaupon tea.”

See how two sisters from Texas launched the Cat Spring Yaupon Tea and have sold enough yaupon to brew more than 100,000 cups of tea, to customers in 36 states of the country.

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