Of the twenty-five species of holly (Ilex spp.) that Native Americans used for tea, only three are known to contain caffeine: yaupon, guayusa, and yerba maté. Steeped in myth, tradition, and social meaning, these herbs were imbibed as green tea is consumed today in China: as invigorating tonics, digestive stimulants, and tokens of hospitality. Today yerba maté is readily available in health food stores in North America, and its use is becoming more widespread. Yaupon remains a South American beverage; guayusa is nearly extinct.
Traditionally, the beverage made from the dried leaves and stems of maté or yaupon shrubs is sipped from an ornamental calabash shell called a maté through a silver straining straw called a bombilla. In the Creek yaupon rite, the black drink was served first to the highest-ranking individual present, then to the other members of the tribe in descending hierarchical order. Maté drinkers observe the same etiquette.
Widely used today for Yuletide decorations, the foliage of yaupon holly (I. vomitoria) was used as a medicinal tea by Native Americans from Virginia to Florida and along the Gulf Coast to the Rio Grande. Indeed, the evergreen leaves contain more caffeine than those of any other native North American plant.
The hot beverage brewed from the roasted leaves and twigs, known as cassina or black drink, was served in ritual vessels made from seashells or calabashes for purification, fortification, and, according to the sixteenth-century explorer Caleb Swan, to “cement friendship, benevolence and hospitality.”
Spanish missionaries who colonized St. Augustine, Florida, in 1565 were among the first Europeans to try the beverage with a taste comparable to that of Asian tea. Imported into Europe, it enjoyed a brief vogue as “South Sea tea,” and during the American Civil War, when southern coffee supplies were cut off by blockade, it became a popular substitute in the Confederacy.
Perhaps one of the reasons yaupon didn’t catch on was its association with Native American purification rites (commemorated by its unfortunate epithet vomitoria). An emetic it’s not, though it was consumed during purification rites along with true emetics such as salt water and button snakeroot. Yaupon is, however, an excellent diuretic and digestive.
Yerba maté (I. paraguariensis) is widely used in southern South America, where many prefer it to coffee. Like yaupon, maté started out as a medicinal and ritual drink. It is believed that the Guarani of modern Paraguay introduced Spanish missionaries to it in the early fifteenth century. The Spaniards embraced and promoted the beverage. In South America’s “southern cone” today, the accoutrements and rituals surrounding maté drinking are elaborate. The beverage is often drunk socially as a token of hospitality and friendship. (In Argentina, it is said that if you drink maté for one month, you become an Argentine citizen for life.)
Considered a tonic, maté is an excellent source of vitamin C and trace minerals. It probably contributed to the extraordinary longevity of the gauchos, who otherwise lived almost exclusively on fatty meats. American athletes are now drinking maté because of the claim that it maintains the oxygen-facilitated breakdown of sugars to supply energy to active muscles, thus delaying the buildup of lactic acid that contributes to muscle fatigue.
Fernando Pagés Ruiz of Lincoln, Nebraska, specializes in fitness, health and culture. He is currently working on a book about the history of yerba maté and has been drinking the herb for more than twenty years.
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