The Indigenous Agriculture of the Americas . . . Holly Tea

Sacred Black Drink ~ Asé ~ Maté ~ Yaupon Tea

by Richard L. Thornton, Architect and City Planner

Part Three of the Series

Did you know that Asé is the word for the Sacred Black Drink and the holly trees, from which it is made, in both the Creek and Panoan (Peru) languages?   Ossabaw Island, Georgia is the Anglicization of the Panoan word Asebo, which means “Yaupon Holly – Place of.”   I was unable to translate most of the Native American place names of Georgia and South Carolina, below Charleston, until acquiring dictionaries for indigenous languages of northwestern and northern South America!

At least four closely related holly trees or bushes are used to make a beverage in the Americas. Their leaves lack thorns and are related to Asian tea, which is a member of the Holly Family.  They are Ilex paraguariensis (native to southern South America, Ilex guayusa in the western Amazon jungle, Ilex vomitoria (native to the Southeastern Coastal Plain, but now also growing wild around the Maya city of Palenque, Chiapas) and Ilex cassine (grows very close to the coasts of the Southeastern United States, Cuba and Tamaulipas State, Mexico. 

Although vastly more South American Holly Tea is consumed in the Americas, Yaupon Tea seems orchestrated specifically for the mind and body. The American teas contain little or no tannin, so no sugar is needed to counteract the bitter tannin taste that is found in Asian teas.  Yaupon leaves’ perfect ratio of stimulating xanthines such as caffeine, theobromine and theophylline release slowly into the body, providing a jitter-free mental clarity and an ease to the stomach. 

Yaupon Holly (ilex vomitoria) also has a superior taste to Cassina Holly and therefore was what was usually cultivated on the coast and coastal islands.  Its name should be changed, because Yaupon tea does NOT make one nauseous.

Traditional brewing method: The yaupon leaves for the black drink (both in North and South America) were traditionally picked as close to the time of its planned consumption as possible. After picking, they were lightly parched in a ceramic container over fire. The roasting increases the solubility in water of the caffeine, which is the same reason coffee beans are roasted. After browning, they were boiled in large containers of water until the liquid reached a dark brown or black color, giving it its name. The liquid was then strained into containers to cool, until it was cool enough to not scald the skin, and drunk while still hot. Because caffeine is 30 times more soluble in boiling water than room temperature water, this heightened its effect. Its physiological effects are believed to be mainly those of massive doses of caffeine.

In 2012, scientists at the University of Minnesota proved that the Maya Blue pigment used on buildings in Palenque was made with attapulgite from the Chattahoochee River Basin in Georgia. Apparently, attapulgite miners/traders also returned home with Yaupon Holly plants, which were adapted to Palenque’s climate. They now grow naturally in the region around Palenque, Chiapas, but no where else in Mexico.

History of Yaupon Tea

In early November 1567,  French military commander Captain Dominique de Gourgues partied on Ossabaw Island with leaders of several Native American provinces on the coast of present-day Georgia and South Carolina.  They were celebrating an alliance to drive the hated Spaniards out of the South Atlantic Coast with the consumption of vast quantities of yaupon tea.  De Gourgues stated that the entire island was devoted to the cultivation of yaupon trees for the production of this premium quality beverage.  At this time coffee and Asian tea were unknown to Europeans, unless they had traveled in the Middle East.

Asebo (Ossabaw) Island also functioned as a regional recreational destination for young singles, just as Myrtle Beach, Daytona, Palm Beach and Panama City serves today.  They came from throughout present-day Georgia, SE Tennessee, western North Carolina and South Carolina.  He added that the single girls, who joined their party, were some of the most beautiful he had ever seen.  Perhaps the fact that Yaupon Tea contained four times the caffeine of coffee might have stimulated their appreciation of the young indigenous women.  LOL

Aerial view of the marshes on Ossabaw Island, GA

While attempting to colonize the South Atlantic Coast between 1562 and 1565 French Huguenots frequently drank Yaupon Tea with their Native American allies. They brought dried Yaupon leaves back to France, but initially the Wars of Religion interrupted any significant importation.  This was 45 years before the Dutch and Portuguese began to import Asian tea into and over a century before Europeans became generally aware of coffee.   

Colonists in the Southern British provinces almost immediately began using the charred leaves of the yaupon holly after arriving in the New World.  It was a tea similar to the black drink, but without the additional herbs, such red snake root, which caused nausea. The use of Ilex vomitoria by colonists for tea making and for medicinal uses in the Carolinas is documented by the early eighteenth century. In the English-speaking colonies, it was known variously as cassina, yaupon tea, Indian tea, Carolina tea, and Appalachian tea. It was commonly believed to be and used as a diuretic.

Its use by colonists in Spanish Florida is documented as far back as 1615. An account from that year describes Spaniards in St. Augustine experiencing symptoms that would now be described as caffeine dependence due to excessive daily consumption of what they called cacina or té del indio.

Competition with India

According to Black Drink: A Native American Tea, by anthropologist Charles Hudson, at the time of the American Revolution, yaupon holly was widely grown for tea on colonial farms and there was an established yaupon tea trade with Europe. It was marketed as “Cassina,” “Carolina Tea,” and “South Seas Tea” in England and was called “Appalachine” in France, because the French Huguenots first drank Yaupon Tea with the Highland Apalache (Creek) Indians of Georgia.

By the late 1700s, yaupon tea was described as being more commonly used in North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and Florida at breakfast than tea made with Asian tea (Camellia sinensis). In addition to drinking Yaupon Tea on their own, European colonists often consumed black drinks, when engaging in discussions and treaties with Natives. Its preparation by European colonists was nearly identical to the method of preparation used by their Native neighbors.

The first clash between Southern farmers and the British nobility resulted in the Boston Tea Party.  King George III and many other nobles of England had invested heavily in the East Indian Company, which was initially dependent on Asian tea in order to make a profit.  Both the King and parliament issued edicts requiring British colonists to only import East Indian tea and not export Yaupon Tea. A tax was then charged on the imported tea.  Only ships, registered in Great Britain could ship tea to the British colonies.  Yaupon gained the moniker “Liberty Tea” in Boston when it replaced imported tea from the time of the Boston Tea Party until normal commerce with England returned after the War of 1812.

In 1783, while traveling through North Carolina, German botanist Johann David Schöpf noted in his journal that yaupon tea had become so popular, the British East India Company was becoming increasingly alarmed about it as a threat to their control of the world’s tea market. By 1789, Britain was actively working to limit the amount of American tea sold in Europe. They found an ally in famed botanist William Aiton, who had been appointed by King George III to be Superintendent of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

In 1789, Aiton, gave yaupon its controversial scientific name, Ilex vomitoria. The American public and botanists knew, good and well, that Native Americans added toxic herbs to Yaupon Tea in order to force vomiting.

It was a politically motivated smear campaign to further squash the threat to the English tea trade.  Otherwise,  ships flying under American flags could deliver American tea at a fraction of the cost of tea from India.   Whatever his underlying motivation, Aiton’s covert naming strategy tainted yaupon’s reputation and instilled a lasting fear of unwanted side effects among European customers.

Revival, then decline in usage

During the Civil War, yaupon tea was used as a substitute for coffee and tea throughout the South. Yaupon continued to be used along the Carolina and Georgia Coasts for medicinal purposes and as a common drink until the late 1890s. At that point, its use was stigmatized because of its natural abundance as being a habit associated with rural poor people. By 1928 it was described as only being in common use on Knotts Island, North Carolina.

During the 1930s, the United States Department of Agriculture investigated the use of Yaupon tea as a substitute for coffee and tea. There were also a few attempts at the commercialization of yaupon holly and cassina holly tea during that same period. By 1973 it was believed that cassina tea was only being served at the Pony Island Restaurant on Ocracoke Island, North Carolina.

Yaupon holly didn’t disappear; this valuable, precious plant has been right there in front of us, waiting all this time for us to remember. And now, exactly when we need extra focus and resiliency in these challenging times, here is yaupon again. Last year, small-scale farmers and entrepreneurs harvested, roasted, and sold more than 10,000 pounds of yaupon!

The American Yaupon Association (AYA) was founded in 2018 to establish standards, safety systems, and more for this rebounding industry. With a clear understanding of the colonialism and exploitation that was part and parcel of European and American history with this plant and recognizing that these same patterns are woven deeply into the history of coffee and tea production as well, the AYA is particularly focused on promoting sustainability and honoring traditional indigenous relationships with yaupon.

The AYA is committed to producing tea without exploitation and in a sustainable way; member companies work with local organizations to promote Native American rights, and to establish rehabilitative employment initiatives to help people learn new trades, and they collaborate with conservation groups to promote biodiversity where yaupon is harvested and to mitigate forest fire danger.

In the early 2000s yaupon tea began witnessing a resurgence in its popularity, and can now be purchased at a store in the Savannah Riverfront, online and at several historical sites related to Native Americans.  Cassina tea consumption today is limited to people living directly on the South Atlantic coast, where the Cassina Holly grows wild.

Yerb Mate’ is very similar in appearance to Yaupon Holly.

History of Yerba Maté

The consumption of yerba maté became widespread in the Spanish colony of Paraguay in the late 16th century both among Spanish settlers and indigenous Guaraní people, who had to some extent consumed it before the Spanish arrival. Whereas Yaupon and Cassine Hollies like sandy loam and moderate soil moisture, their Paraguayan cousin only grew naturally in swamps.  Many thousand of Native American slaves and serfs (mission Indians) died of disease while harvesting holly leaves in southern South America.

Maté consumption spread in the 17th century to the Platine region and from there to Chile and Peru. Eventually, it became popular throughout South America, but never was popular in Central America or Mexico.  After coffee cultivation began in the highlands of northern South America and central America, coffee became more popular. During the colonial period in Europe, maté failed to be accepted like cocoa, tea and coffee. In 1774 the Jesuit José Sánchez Labrador wrote that maté as consumed by “many” in Portugal and Spain and that many in Italy approved of it.  The beverage was almost forgotten by Europeans, though, by the early 1800s. 

However, in the early 20th century, Syrian and Lebanese immigrants to Argentina spread the habit of drinking maté to their homelands, where it became particularly associated with the Druze.  Until the Syrian Civil War broke out in 2011,  Syria was the largest importer of yerba mate leaves outside of South America.

5 Comments

  1. I never knew that tea was such an interesting subject Richard and, I have never heard of Yaupon tea. I used to love a cup of tea but since I am a diabetic and can’t take sugar and I don’t like tea without sugar I now resort to coffee . Thank you for this very interesting post. Stay safe.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I believe so. Just go online to a Yaupon producer and ask them to send some to you. They tea boxes don’t weigh much. That will help the shipping costs. Another option is to set yourself up as an agent for a yaupon company and so get your American tea free while taking orders from other businesses.

    Liked by 2 people

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