Foragers and local food entrepreneurs across the southeastern U.S. use holly plants for much more than Christmas wreaths. While several species of the holly family can be brewed into an herbal tea, the yaupon holly (Ilex vomitoria) is the only plant native to the United States naturally containing caffeine. The drink is similar to mate tea, brewed from another type of holly (Ilex paraguariensis) native to central and southern South America.
Tea from yaupon holly leaves was a popular beverage and trade good for Native Americans in the Southeast, such as the Cherokee, who shared the secrets of the drink with European and American colonists. The antioxidant- and caffeine-rich leaves were a popular trade and export item, and yaupon holly was even enjoyed as an alternative tea during the Civil War.
The leaves of the plant can be air-dried and then steamed in the style of a green tea or roasted in the style of a black tea. There are less tannins in the yaupon tea leaves, which results in a brew less bitter than tea from the familiar Camellia sinensis plant.
Don’t be scared off by the Latin name of the yaupon holly: Ilex vomitoria. The name references a ritual use of the tea by southeastern Native Americans who brewed an extremely strong version of the drink for men only to consume before important community events, such as political gatherings or war. This “black tea” containing high amounts of caffeine, theobromine and ursolic acid, was consumed in extremely large amounts until vomiting was induced as part of the purification ritual. However, when the tea is prepared in milder amounts more appropriate to a daily cup of tea (such as a teaspoon of ground leaves per cup), the tea will be as enjoyable as any other steeped beverage.
Where To Find Holly
Common along coastlines or in sandy soils, this holly variety grows so well under extreme conditions that it’s considered a nuisance plant by some landowners. Other landscapers enjoy the many varieties that can be clipped into hedges or ornamental shapes. The weeping cultivar is another lovely ornamental that is said to have higher concentrations of caffeine. Increasing fertility of the soil that holly is grown in may also increase the concentrations of caffeine in the leaves.