Tea is made from the plant Camellia sinensis which was carefully guarded in China for centuries. Seeds were smuggled into India by the British in 1836 to break the Chinese tea monopoly. We can grow that plant here and UF/IFAS is researching cultivars for adaptation to our conditions. However, why not go native and use the only North American caffeine producing plant that grows wild here – Yaupon holly.
Yaupon holly is an evergreen holly with small green leaves on stiff branches. Selected cultivars are used as hedges (a compact, shrub form resembles boxwood) and small trees, including a weeping form. Males and females are separate plants, so if you want berries be sure to purchase a female. The plant is an excellent choice for organic production because, as a native plant, it is adapted to Florida conditions and requires very few inputs. It is great for an edible landscape because it is ornamental and useful for tea. Leave the berries for the birds though.
The scientific name, Ilex vomitoria, refers to the native American use of the plant for purification ceremonies where strong teas were drunk to excess to induce vomiting. Early botanists noted this and looked no further for a name. When brewed properly and consumed in moderation the tea is perfectly safe and was used by Amerindians and European immigrants for daily consumption.
The University of Florida researched making yaupon holly tea from various cultivars and wild plants. Researchers found the ornamental ‘Nana’ cultivar had caffeine levels similar to Asian green tea, as well as antioxidant levels similar to blueberries. The cultivar ‘Pendula’ had the highest caffeine concentrations of the cultivars tested. Wild yaupon holly caffeine levels vary and may provide genetics for breeding a better tea-producing plant.
Roasting Leaves for Tea
There are many types of hollies and plants that look similar to yaupon hollies, so use caution to be sure you are using the correct plant. Other plants may not be safe to eat, and as always when trying a new food, go slowly to make sure you are not allergic. To make tea, one recipe recommends selecting and pruning the new, light green growth – leaves and small twigs. Roast the cuttings for 8 minutes at 300℉ or until they start to turn brown. Alternatively, you can heat them in a skillet until they start to turn brown. Cool the leaves and twigs so they dry, and crumble them to resemble loose tea. One tablespoon steeped in two cups of boiling water for three minutes will provide a refreshing light tea.
At least nine small companies are now producing yaupon tea for sale, including one in Volusia County. The growers recently created the American Yaupon Association to promote their tea. It is too bad that the American revolutionary patriots didn’t know about this drink or they could have started the first “buy American Grown” campaign and avoided a lot of the aggravation caused by the English Tea Act tax that incited the Boston Tea Party. Yaupon tea might now be more popular than coffee which people switched to drinking for patriotic reasons.