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America's forgotten native beverage teaPosted Wednesday, November 23, 2011, at 2:28 PM
For photo prints, go to www.stevenfoster.com/prints.html
No, instead, I'm going to focus on America's forgotten beverage tea -- yaupon holly -- that just like coffee, tea, and yerba maté is loaded with healthful antioxidants, and of course, caffeine.
We grow yaupon holly as a semi-evergreen, red fruit-bearing, ornamental shrub. I have two planted in front of my house. It's native to Arkansas, too, originating in the southern Ouachitas.
Yaupon holly is most closely related to Ilex species found in the mountains of Mexico and Caribbean islands. It is a northern genetic outlier to subtropical and tropical hollies. This shrub evolved in the Ouachita Mountains, then thousands of years ago spread throughout the southeastern United States.
Anthropology reveals that if you were a European explorer entering an indigenous village along the Gulf Coast, the elders would greet you with an offering of yaupon holly tea, the leaves of which were grown in semi-wild plantations, and served up as a sacred or ceremonial beverage.
It was called "black drink" as the leaves were usually decocted down to a thick brew (think espresso). Indians called it cassine.
In 1542, a book on the travels of Álvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca (1490-1558), long-predating the English Pilgrims of our Thanksgiving celebration, provides the first published observations on its use. Earlier, in 1536, Pánfilo de Narváez (1478-1528), whose observations were published in an English edition in 1904, met with the beverage among native groups along the Texas coast:
"Afterwards he [the tribal leader] commandeth Cassine to be brewed, which is a drinke made of the leaves of a certaine tree. They drinke this cassine very hotte; he drinketh first, then causeth to be given thereof to all of them one after another in the same boule. . . it taketh away hunger and thirst for four and twenty houres after."
In addition, a thick brew of black tea was drunk before going into battle, both as a stimulant and a ceremonial cleanser imbibed until it induced nausea. Yaupon holly's South American cousin, yerbe maté, also a caffeine-containing holly, is available wherever herbal teas are sold.
So how did the yaupon holly become North America's only caffeine-containing plant forever forgotten as a beverage tea? I suspect the answer lies with the accepted scientific name bestowed on the plant by English botanist William Aiton in 1789, honoring the tea's ceremonial use before entering battle -- Ilex vomitoria.
Steven Foster is a world renowned botanical photographer. He has published many books, including 2 for National Geographic
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