The Complex History of Drinking Yaupon Tea

August 17, 2022

The Complex History of Drinking Yaupon Tea

A brief mapping of North America’s only native caffeinated plant, from its Southern Indigenous heritage to its revitalization today.

South Carolina, 1922. Dr. George F. Mitchell, official tea taster of the United States Department of Agriculture, welcomed two federally-employed camera men from Washington D.C. to his newly established cassina factory to document the “dramatic story of this interesting experiment.” 

Mitchell’s demonstration centered on the cultivation and commodification of cassina, more commonly known as yaupon, through which he hoped to convince the American public, as well as their pocketbooks, on the many uses of North America’s only native caffeinated plant. 

After analyzing yaupon’s chemical make-up and realizing its potential commercial value, Mitchell produced over 6,000 pounds of yaupon tea and planned to market it across the country as an inexpensive and tasty alternative to imported Chinese tea. According to a quote in the Oakland Tribune in 1927, Mitchell argued yaupon could make a “real run for the future American beverage trade.”

Mitchell was just one in a long line of entrepreneurs who “discovered” and aimed to commercialize yaupon after learning about the plant from the ritual and culinary practices of numerous Indigenous groups—including the Creek and Cherokee—spread across the Southern United States. 

After wrecking his ship off the coast of Texas in 1528, Spanish explorer Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca observed Indigenous communities participating in ritualistic ceremonies featuring the yaupon leaf. Seventeenth-century English physician and philosopher John Locke sent for samples of cassina from the colonies in order to discover the plant’s properties and marketability. 

Yaupon was a staple on Southern plantations and farms before the U.S. Civil War; and later, during wartime blockades, reports showed Confederate soldiers and other Southerners dealing with supply shortages by substituting native-grown yaupon for tea. In the late 19th century, newspapers advertised yaupon bitters as a “vegetable elixir of life,” recommending it to children with weak constitutions and as a cure-all for an array of complaints and diseases. 

In the 20 years or so before Mitchell was tasked with repopularizing the indigenous plant, late 19th-century Chicago physician Edwin Hale wrote on the history and economical possibilities of yaupon for the U.S.D.A. Despite numerous attempts, each of these endeavors failed, largely due to immense competition in the transatlantic and U.S. beverage industries, but also because of the disparaging narratives constructed around Indigenous use of yaupon, also known as Ilex vomitoria and the “black drink.” 

Throughout history and across multiple geographies, yaupon has been known by many names including cassina, cassine, asi, Carolina tea, Christmas berry, as well as various spellings of the word “yaupon.” The name “asi” comes from the Creek and Muskogee word for “leaf,” and “yaupon” derives from the Catawban word for “small tree.” More common, however, was yaupon’s association with its colonizer-given name—the black drink—named for the color of the liquid after cured yaupon leaves were steeped in water. 

There is extensive writing and speculation on the ceremonial implications of yaupon consumption, how it varied between Indigenous groups, and its contemporary legacy, but much of this scholarship was written by colonizers and reveals more about Europeans rather than the Indigenous cultures who used yaupon for centuries. Courtney Lewis, associate professor of anthropology at the University of South Carolina and citizen of the Cherokee Nation, explains that even general information about the Indigenous use of yaupon primes the ritual for appropriation (much like the complicated ethics surrounding the burning of white sage, a practice sacred to the Indigenous communities along the western coast of the United States). 

Respecting Indigenous cultural sovereignty, we can turn instead to unpacking the problematic history behind yaupon’s Latin name: Ilex vomitoria (which literally translates to “holly that makes one spew forth”). As yaupon grew in popularity among the merchants and scientists of Europe, William Aiton, 18th-century botanist at the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, gave the plant its official Latin title. Scholars debate over Aiton’s motives for such an unfortunate name—could he have been bought off by the East India Company tea monopoly, or perhaps it was an act of systemic anti-Indigenous sentiment? 

Regardless of Aiton’s original intentions, the myth that yaupon possessed dangerous emetic properties stuck. Later, historical records such as The Cherokee Physician, or Indian Guide To Health by Cherokee doctor Richard Foreman, published in 1849, lists yaupon as a “well known shrub” that “makes a pleasant tea,” without any mention of emetic properties. While many contemporary gardening and extension resources take great care to explain yaupon’s history followed with advice on how to make your own tea, it’s likely difficult for many consumers to move past its unfortunate name.

If you grew up anywhere in the South, you likely learned about yaupon coupled with a cautionary tale about its stomach-churning side effects. Native to the Southeastern United States, but found growing hardily from the Carolina coastal forests down through Florida and all the way to Central Texas, yaupon is a multi-trunked evergreen shrub that can grow anywhere from 10 to 30 feet tall. In response to its diverse geographies, yaupon exists in many cultivars including dwarf, columnar and weeping varieties. 

Regardless of its shape, every yaupon grows with the same telltale characteristics: small, shiny, dark green almond-shaped leaves with gently serrated edges and smooth, pale gray bark. In the fall and winter, the female bushes produce translucent spherical berries that resemble ripe red currants. “That specific leaf—alternate in arrangement—is how you know you’ve got yaupon,” says agricultural and natural resources county extension agent Gene Fox. He serves four counties in Eastern North Carolina, one of which includes Ocracoke Island, a prime yaupon habitat and part of North Carolina’s coastal Outer Banks region. 

According to Christine Folch, assistant professor of cultural anthropology at Duke University whose research focuses on yerba mate (Ilex paraguariensis) and other edible Ilexes, yaupon consumption by white settlers on the Outer Banks started as early as the 18th century. Over the years, yaupon evolved as part of a derogatory stereotype of islanders and later became associated with the food of lower classes and Black communities, further complicating its desirability in a market dominated by white consumers.

Now, a century after Mitchell’s attempt at normalizing yaupon in American society, a handful of new entrepreneurs are “rediscovering” the plant and sharing it with an eager public. Spread across the Southeastern United States, most of the producers harvest and sell a traditional dry-heat cured yaupon tea in either loose-leaf or bagged varieties. 

In 2011, after a historic drought through which only yaupon bushes survived, Abianne Falla started a company named after her hometown of Cat Spring, Texas. CatSpring Yaupon’s offerings include three different loose-leaf and bagged yaupon roasts in addition to a cold brew-style iced tea pack. A leader in the Texas yaupon industry, CatSpring Yaupon now partners with local restaurants, spas and hotels, and partners with various brands including the traditional tea giant, Harney & Sons. 

In Austin, Texas, Jason Ellis, Heidi Wachter and John Seibold launched Lost Pines Yaupon in 2015 selling loose-leaf and bagged teas along with yaupon tea concentrates—flavored with complementary ingredients such as mint, lemon and strawberry. Lost Pines’ yaupon is also used in local restaurants and is a featured flavor in Treaty Oak Distilling’s Waterloo Old Yaupon Gin. Another Austin-based producer aptly named Local Leaf makes a Japanese-style yaupon matcha. Founders Stacy Coplin and Eric Knight traveled to Kyoto to learn how to produce traditional Japanese tencha and applied that same process to yaupon leaves creating an immediately recognizable bright green matcha-style powder. 

In Savannah, Georgia, Lou Thomann founded Yaupon Teahouse & Apothecary in 2010. Thomann’s background in agricultural commodity trade and interest in research led him to make products based on historical uses of yaupon. In addition to loose-leaf and bagged yaupon teas, the Yaupon Teahouse makes a line of yaupon-centered skincare products including toners, oils and serums (which, unlike the yaupon bitters of old, claim to “revitalize” rather than cure a weak constitution).

One of the biggest differences between contemporary yaupon producers is how they harvest the plant. At Yaupon Teahouse, Thomann wild harvests from regenerative farms in Georgia and Florida, but is conducting grant-funded research in partnership with several universities on the best practices for growing Yaupon by experimenting with cultivation variables. In Central Texas, where the plant can grow into impenetrable thickets that are inhospitable to local fauna and pose potential wildfire hazards, Lost Pines works with landowners to clear excess yaupon. Through this process, Lost Pines also helps restore the endangered Houston toad’s native habitat. 

 Others, like founders Bryon and Kyle White and Mark Steele of Yaupon Brothers American Tea Co. in Florida, are farming yaupon from tree starts as a row crop similar to the methods used by 19th-century landowners and even Indigenous groups before them. Growing up in Florida, Bryon White became frustrated with the region’s precarious citrus industry and the other historic agricultural pursuits that were increasingly displaced by real estate. Like many of his peers, White turned to historical research and found yaupon to be a potential solution. 

In addition to his work with Yaupon Brothers, White has also joined forces with Oliver Luckett to create Yazoo Yaupon in nearby Mississippi. Located in the agriculturally rich region of the Mississippi Delta, this joint yaupon farming effort works to create new jobs, rematriate Black farm land with farmers who help grow generational yaupon crops, and create a circular economy centered around an indigenous plant. White has also recruited former mental-health-professional-turned-farmer Crystal Stokes up in Richmond, Virginia, just on the edge of yaupon’s native geographic range, to help run cold hardiness trials—a process scientists and farmers use to test a plant’s ability to survive exposure to low temperatures—with the tree starts.

With a team made up entirely of neurodivergent individuals—Stokes, the only Black yaupon producer in the United States—runs Project CommuniTea, which grows herbs and wild harvests yaupon for tea blends and partners with organizations like Safe Space to create tea-centered experiences for learning and community. 

Aside from Stokes, most of the contemporary yaupon producers are white and pay careful attention to how their company and yaupon products fit into the larger Indigenous narrative surrounding the plant. When he first started out, White unknowingly used, what he calls, “insensitive branding” featuring various Indigenous symbols. White later received a letter from an Indigenous consumer who called out his problematic branding, but also advised him to continue his work with yaupon, focusing on the plant rather than outdated or appropriated stereotypes. Much like a glass of wine is not the same as taking communion, Folch explains that a cup of yaupon tea is not the same as the “black drink,” and contemporary yaupon consumption invites us to talk about the relationships between plants and humans and is a helpful starting point in reckoning with our past. 

While this doesn’t absolve non-Indigenous producers from any appropriative concerns, most of the producers take extra measures, either through cautionary environmental measures or donations to Indigenous organizations to ensure the current yaupon industry doesn’t repeat history’s mistakes. Yaupon Teahouse partners with the American Indian College Fund, and Yaupon Brothers donates a portion of proceeds to North American Traditional Indigenous Food Systems and the Indigenous Food Lab founded by Chef Sean Sherman. And after working with the Chickasaw Visitor Center in Oklahoma and learning more about her own family’s history, Falla was able to finalize her registration as a member of the Chickasaw Nation.

Of the shortlist of yaupon producers, only Falla of CatSpring Yaupon openly discusses its Indigenous heritage. And as Falla only recently finished the registration process with the Chickasaw Nation, she is still navigating how to share this incredibly important detail through her company’s messaging. That there are no other known, or seemingly known, Indigenous sellers is concerning—a concern White says is really an “obligation to try and make it right.”

Together, these producers have formed the American Yaupon Association with the intent to collaboratively create “responsible production, sustainable practices, and educational outreach” centered around a largely forgotten plant that was once integral to Southern culture. 

“We’re not going to let yaupon exist how other American companies have existed,” White says. Instead, he continues, they will serve as the plant’s “temporary steward” as the nation remembers its historic connections to this Indigenous tea.

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