Native American Caffeine

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Photo by Getty Images/NajaShots
Yaupon (Ilex vomitoria) is a beautiful hedge plant in the American South.

While many people rely on a cup (or four) of coffee to get going in the morning, they may not realize that their favorite brew contains far more than the caffeine that kick-starts their days. Dozens of chemicals long banned in the United States, such as chlorpyrifos, disulfoton, and methyl parathion, are still used in nonorganic coffee production, putting both farms and field workers at risk of toxic contamination.

In light of coffee’s potential adverse environmental effects, some Americans are turning to a more local source instead: yaupon. This increasingly popular drink is native to the southeast United States and contains a caffeine level that falls between black tea and coffee. Many southeastern Native American tribes valued yaupon as a ceremonial drink, and the brew, similar in taste and texture to yerba mate, reached peak popularity during the time of the Revolutionary War.

Drought-tolerant, salt-tolerant, and able to withstand freezing temperatures, the yaupon plant is well-suited to its local climate. Yaupon thrives in sandy soils from Virginia to Florida, and even in Texas. In fact, yaupon is the quintessential evergreen tree along the Atlantic coast, a region where it’s as familiar in suburban hedgerows as it is in its native forests. Yet, while tropical yerba mate has increased in popularity over the years, yaupon has fallen into obscurity as a drink.

To try this American caffeine source for yourself, place a tea bag or a single teaspoon of loose-leaf yaupon in a cup of near-boiling water. Steep the leaves 4 to 6 minutes before removing them and enjoying your sustainable southeast tea. Suppliers include CatSpring Yaupon in Texas and Florida’s Yaupon Brothers American Tea Co.