Yaupon Holly is a tree native to the Southeastern United States. Its leaves were used for thousands of years by southeastern native tribes as a stimulating beverage, medicinal plant and ceremonial drink. Amongst the most sacred of our native medicinal plants, it is the only indigenous source of caffeine in North America. Yaupon is in the same Ilex family as Yerba Mate and Guayusa, sacred plants of South America.
Yaupon was used by Native Americans for traditional medicine, sacred ceremonies, friendship rituals and as a stimulating tea-like beverage. It was referred to as the Beloved Tree, Big Medicine, ASI, The Purifier and the Black Drink.
Yaupon was nurtured and transplanted where it could grow, and Native American tribes traveled great distances to consume and trade Yaupon. Ancient vessels have been discovered to contain traces of Yaupon, as far south as Mexico where the Native Americans traded with the Mayans, exchanging Yaupon for Cacao. When paired together, Yaupon and Cacao was consumed as a sacred ceremonial drink. Both Yaupon and Cacao contain theobromine.
Yaupon was ubiquitous among the Native Americans of the Southern United States, used in native traditional medicine to:
- Calm nerves
- Create a stimulative effect
- Purify water
- Suppress and induce appetite
- Induce sleep, dreams and visions by the medicine men who smoked it
- Regulate female menstrual cycles
- Heal skin as a salve for rashes and wounds
- Fend off bacteria due to the plant's anti-bacterial properties
- Create fermented tea
- Purify body, mind and soul as part of The Black Drink Ceremony, which involved fasting, drinking, chanting and purging
The earliest European settlers valued Yaupon, as well. They attributed the extraordinary health and longevity of the native population to Yaupon use and consumption. At the time, the average European life span was 45 years while the Native Americans were living well into their seventies.
Early settlers traded with the natives for Yaupon, sending it back to Europe under several different names. The English called it Carolina Tea, South Seas Tea and Cassina. Spanish settlers referred to Yaupon as Indian Chocolate because of its sweet flavor. The French referred to Yaupon as Appalachine after the Appalachacola Indians that had taught them about the plan. Yaupon was also known as Liberty Tea, sent to Boston to replace imported tea after the Boston Tea Party.
In the United States, southerners have a long history of using native plants to brew tea. For generations, southerners have wild-harvested Yaupon as well as other indigenous medicinal plants like Sassafras, Spanish Moss, Nettles and White Oak.