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Yaupon, a native Florida tea, is making a comeback.

A favorite native landscaping plant is being rediscovered as a caffeinated drink, an alternative to the imported tea that 159 million Americans drink every day. We are talking about Yaupon Holly (Ilex vomitoria Aiton), a common landscaping plant used to build hedges.  This evergreen plant, native to the Southeast, was widely used by Native Americans in various ways including making tea. This is the only native plant known to contain caffeine in North America and produces 30% more antioxidants than the typical black and green tea.

Showing a Yaupon tree and its characteristically serrated leaves.

There are now at least nine small companies in the country that are growing and marketing yaupon as a local, native alternative to tea. One of those companies is located in Volusia County, Florida. Entrepreneur Bryon White was a native plant enthusiast years ago. He learned about the interesting history of yaupon and decided to experiment with the wild type yaupon. He served it to friends and family and they liked the taste, aroma and the caffeine boost. People would buy yaupon tea if they understood its rich history, and where it is coming from, Bryon thought.

After some trial and error, he realized that there could be a healthy demand for yaupon tea and that’s when Bryan and his brother Kyle decided to jump into business. Since 2012 their certified organic business, Yaupon Brothers, markets its tea to many parts in the country and abroad. Their market is concentrated in the Southeast through a few big box stores, direct sales through Amazon and independent health food retailers. They also have a strong following locally in New Smyrna Beach, where their company is located. Most of their tea comes from wild yaupon that is harvested following the USDA organic regulations. They currently have 50 acres of wild harvested yaupon. Only 5% of their tea comes from cultivated trees.

Growing Yaupon

Bryon believes that yaupon could be a profitable alternative crop for Florida growers, and there is certainly a lot to love about the environmental benefits of growing a native crop. Take for example that yaupon can be grown with little maintenance in the way of fertilizers. Irrigation is necessary only during crop establishment, as the tree is very drought tolerant. Yaupon is also salt and frost tolerant, as well as pest and disease free; pesticides are rarely needed. This fast growing tree can grow up to 30 feet but keeping the height around 7 to 8 feet is optimal. The trees can be harvested after two or three years, harvest occurs once a year. The leaves are then washed, dried, cleaned and milled to four to six millimeter particle size. This is then sifted and sold in teabags.

Bryon showing fresh made Yaupon tea bags.

Bryon recognizes that there is a lot of unanswered questions about yaupon production. For example, formal yaupon research is needed to figure out recommended density and profitability per area. Despite this, his company is looking for growers who want to grow yaupon, but due to lack of proven profitability numbers, they are hesitant to try. Bryon is pitching the idea of planting yaupon as a windbreak tree that you can harvest from. A plus is, Bryon’s company would supply the trees. Given the demand that Bryon has seen and how little-known yaupon still is, he believes that the demand for this crop will grow substantially. It requires a leap of faith, Bryon said, but it is worth trying. It is certainly profitable for me to grow it and sell it. I believe that Yaupon has a bright future in Florida, he said.

 

The Future of Yaupon tea

Consumers care a lot more about where their food comes from, and yet, they don’t know where their tea comes from, Bryon said. They don’t know what standards of quality and sustainability were used to grow their tea. Now you have a local, native crop alternative where consumers can learn exactly how we are growing it, harvesting it and processing it; he said.

Bryon is in touch with other yaupon companies and are getting together to create the American Yaupon Association, which will provide support to market this native tea alternative to Americans. All in all, yaupon tea production appears to be a win-win-win for producers, consumers and the environment.

Resources and References

Contact Bryon White at Yaupon Brothers https://www.yauponbrothers.com/

USDA-NRCS Yaupon Plant Fact Sheet https://plants.usda.gov/factsheet/pdf/fs_ilvo.pdf

Yaupon Holly Tea http://gardeningsolutions.ifas.ufl.edu/plants/trees-and-shrubs/shrubs/yaupon-holly-tea.html

Palumbo, M. J. et. al. 2009. Ilex Vomitoria Ait. (Yaupon): A Native North American Source of a Caffeinated and Antioxidant-Rich Tea. Economic Botany. Volume 63, Issue 2, pp 130-137 – Link: https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs12231-009-9078-3