Herbal Coffee Substitutes: Yaupon and Yerba Maté

| February/March 2000

  • During traditional rituals, yaupon and yerba maté are sipped from a maté, an ornamental calabash shell, through a bombilla, a silver straining straw.

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.

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