Did you know there's a holly species native to the US Southeast that makes a tasty tea packing about as much caffeine as coffee?
It's called Yaupon (from Yupón, a diminutive form of the Catawban word for tree) and it's the only North American plant containing caffeine. Indigenous people long utilized it, including as part of ceremonies that involved purging — hence the botanical name: Ilex vomitoria. But contrary to that Latin, it is quite safe to consume and will not cause vomiting.
Indeed, yaupon tea, one of many drinks referred to as "black drink", is still enjoyed for both its taste and caffeine content, and it is starting to enjoy something of a renaissance. (Its South American counterpart, a holly called Ilex paraguariensis, is already very popular the world over under its traditional name, Yerba Mate.)
Yaupon's natural range extends from Texas to Florida along the Gulf coast, and north to coastal Virginia along the Atlantic. There are disjunct populations in Arkansas and — surprisingly — in the state of Chiapas in far southern Mexico. It seems highly plausible that humans expanded its range intentionally long ago. Today it is most typically grown as an ornamental plant for its evergreen foliage & long-lasting bright red berries.
In the future, with climate change threatening agriculture the world over — and long-lived plants like coffee & tea likely to be highly sensitive to the coming new extremes — not to mention the possibility of major disruptions to local economies and global trade, Americans may one day count on this resilient, drought-hardy, sand-loving plant for their daily caffeine fix.
We are excited to have seeds from two forms of Yaupon (this standard upright type, along with a weeping version) in our catalogue, both from ornamental plantings at the northern part of this plant's natural range. The origin or cultivar name of these plantings are unknown to us. The seeds may not grow true to type, and they should produce both fruit-bearing & pollen-bearing plants (this species is dioecious), but they are said to be not too difficult to grow from seed. And as ours were all harvested in the state of Virginia, from mature plantings on exposed sites at the northern tip of its natural range, we expect they will be able to thrive far beyond that range in this warming world. Some yaupon are said to thrive as far north as Zone 6. Give it a try and let us know how it does for you!
NOTE: In an effort to improve your chances of success, this year we're offering unprocessed "wet" seed still inside the fruit. There are typically four seeds per fruit, and you will receive 10 fruits. We recommend you remove the seeds from the fruit immediately before planting so the seeds never dry out. They may benefit from some cold-moist stratification, and may exhibit some dormancy or even double dormancy, so plant them somewhere you can keep track of them for up to a couple years.
And we owe a big THANK YOU to our Ujamaa Cooperative Farming Alliance colleague Alexis Yamashita for harvesting this year's seed for us. Thanks Alexis!