Yaupon, South Seas Tea, Apalachine: North America's forgotten tea
February 27, 2021 10:34 AM   Subscribe

Yaupon: The rebirth of America's forgotten tea (BBC) It is North America's only known native caffeinated plant and once threatened the British East India Company. So why has the world forgotten about it?
posted by not_the_water (29 comments total) 41 users marked this as a favorite
When I lived in extreme Eastern NC, where every little community liked to pick play-fights and rivalries with its neighbors, as a people do, the well-known insult to sling at people from Kinnakeet, NC was to taunt them with "Kinnakeeter yaupon-eater!"
posted by glonous keming at 10:47 AM on February 27 [8 favorites]

I drink this! I have three boxes in my cabinet right now! My 9-year-old is a tiny tea fanatic, so (before lockdown) we would go out to tea a few times a year, and go to fancy tea stores and tea tastings, and he has an encyclopedia of tea. ANYWAY, I was looking for a new tea adventure for him, and stumbled upon Catspring Yaupon, mentioned in the article, and we ordered the sampler pack (one each of a light, medium, and dark roasting). It's good!

I'm not very good at describing flavors, but it's a little less-bitter than black tea, less tannic. It is kinda earthy; the lighter roast has a bit of a grassy note to it. You can re-steep it (unlike traditional tea) because without tannins it doesn't get bitter with re-steeping it, so you can leave one yaupon tea bag in your mug and just pour new boiling water over it, and it tastes basically the same the second time. The flavor does get less-intense after a while, obviously, but if you're like me and make tea, drink half of it, get distracted, then want more and find it cold, yaupon is nice because you can dump out the cold water and pour in new hot water and not have to get a new tea bag.

I mean I don't drink it exclusively -- I love tea and herbal infusions and I have a pretty stocked cabinet with different types -- but yaupon is definitely a good addition to the roster!
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 10:57 AM on February 27 [13 favorites]

Oh I got some of this for Christmas from a friend. It’s good! I would get more. Eyebrows McGee pretty much covers it. I drink tea all day and just re-steep until it’s dead (and sometimes beyond), so that quality is valuable to me.
posted by jeweled accumulation at 10:59 AM on February 27 [1 favorite]

Back in the late 90's my dad spent a couple of years trying to get a cassina tea business going down here in NE Florida. He worked really hard at it (and my little brother and I spent a LOT of time stripping leaves off of branches) but alas, the world just wasn't ready for it.
posted by saladin at 11:18 AM on February 27 [3 favorites]

I remember reading about this at Atlas Obscura a while back. Curiosity has now got the better of me, so I've taken the plunge and ordered some - UK Mefites can get it here. Not exactly cheap compared to a box of PG Tips, but you take your novelties where you can during lockdown.
posted by rory at 11:43 AM on February 27 [2 favorites]

Ooh, I'm excited to try this!
posted by sagc at 11:48 AM on February 27

I’m now double-bummed that I’ve become totally caffeine-intolerant in the last few years. I would love to try this, especially since one of the growers is a local company.
posted by Devils Rancher at 11:59 AM on February 27

Well I just ordered some. Black tea has been giving me a weird headache-adjacent feeling in my head. I'm always at a loss for what to drink in the afternoon because more coffee leads to suffering. I don't suppose this stuff stains your teeth less than black tea?
posted by HotToddy at 1:27 PM on February 27 [1 favorite]

Thanks for the tip rory, I'm totally going to order some.
posted by stillnocturnal at 1:41 PM on February 27

In the year 2006, when I ran the restaurant Babajan at Stockholms Ethnographic Museum I met a bunch of Haisla Indians from British Colombia.

They were working at the museum carving a replica totem pole.
The original one from 1872 which the museum had acquired by uncertain means was quite famous in Stockholm but was now with a great fanfare of publicity was to be ceremonially returned to the Haisla whose tribal lands were under now threat from logging companies.
In return they were to carve a new one.
It was a major local news event at the time.

When they were not carving the enormous redwood trunk the guys would hang out in our restaurant listening to music and chatting. We became great friends.
They gave us a bag of tea, whose name I’ve forgotten with vivid descriptions of how they picked the leaves, armed with a tin can with small rocks that you rattled to scare off the bears.
We brewed up a batch immediately and the entire staff indulged. It tasted quite pleasant, a kind of grassy, malty flavour and even a kind of intersting mild high. Kind of lost any inclination to carry on working.
Felt it would probably be declared illegal in Sweden - if they only knew about it.

I’m guessing now that it was Yaupon.
posted by jan murray at 2:24 PM on February 27 [4 favorites]

Yaupon doesn't grow in British Colombia, it's native to southeastern North America. Perhaps it was Labrador tea?
posted by oulipian at 2:51 PM on February 27 [1 favorite]

Thanks for the info on Labrador tea, Oulipian.

So it was forbidden to 18th century German brewers because it made the beer more intoxicating and the drinkers more aggressive.
Hmm - don’t tell the Swedes.
posted by jan murray at 3:30 PM on February 27

Yaupon-eater indeed.
posted by kinnakeet at 5:03 PM on February 27 [7 favorites]

We have a few Yaupons in our yard. The cedar waxwings love the berries. I was curious, so I started shopping at Lost Pines Yaupon Tea but didn't feel like paying for shipping so I clicked the retail link, and it turns out it's sold at the Texas State Park that I was hiking in this afternoon... and the farmer's market a few blocks from here.
posted by aneel at 5:33 PM on February 27

I was trying to find out whether Yaupon flower nectar contains caffeine (which I still don't know), when I came across a page saying Yaupon leaves have more caffeine per unit weight than either tea leaves or coffee.

Caffeine is a potent mite killer though, so maybe that's the reason this particular holly produces it:
Spider mites infrequently become serious holly tree pests, particularly the southern red spider mite and the false spider mite, sometimes called the privet mite. These tiny arachnids congregate in large numbers to feed on the undersides of holly leaves. The false spider mite thrives in hot, dry conditions and their populations increase from early summer through early autumn. The southern red spider mite is one of the few cool-weather mites and their populations peak during spring and autumn when the humidity levels remain high.
posted by jamjam at 7:23 PM on February 27

Oh wow thank you. I will be trying this ASAP.

These appear technically tolerant to our ag zone here in the PNW even though they're not native here; would they be too fiddly in this region? Will our soggy winters wreck them?

Is there any information on the berries? quick searches aren't yielding anything specific to yaupon. I'd be curious to see if they could be processed like coffee; fermented, dried and roasted.

We've been trying to slowly shift a portion of our tea/tisane drinking to garden grown products; last year we yielded about half a kilo of dried pineapple sage leaves (which is just fucking lovely as a tea, and is one of my favorites at this point, and I'm all out and kind of grumpy about it) and about the same amount in chamomile. Hoping to double those yields this year, (I have my hands on some higher yield seed). We even planted a proper tea plant, which grow just fine here, but you can only harvest off of it once or twice a year instead of nearly continually like you can in subtropical/tropical climates. Yaupon sounds like it would be a perfect addition to the tasty-drink-catalog.
posted by furnace.heart at 7:28 PM on February 27 [1 favorite]

Totally ordered the sampler pack that Eyebrows McGee mentioned from Catspring Yaupon. I'm curious to compare it to Navaho Wild Tea that my mom sent me from New Mexico over the holidays, which is native greenthread plant.
posted by indexy at 8:40 PM on February 27

There's a nice discussion of the 4 hollies (out of 400-600) that are known to contain caffeine at The Botanist in the Kitchen, along with allusions to caffeine in plants in general. It's kind of surprisingly rare.
posted by jamjam at 1:27 AM on February 28

We just came back a week ago from my first-ever trip to the Outer Banks, and I noticed these bushes everywhere along the beaches and dunes both where we stayed in Kinnakeet (Avon) and when we went horseback riding in Frisco. I just checked the pictures I took, and yup, those were the ones! It was mostly gray and rainy while we were there, so the red berries really stood out. Really wish I’d known about this tea when we were there - now I’ll have to order some!
posted by widdershins at 6:04 AM on February 28

Having grown yaupon on my Portland balcony for two years (from a wild sample transplanted from Arkansas by Rick Shory), I can personally confirm that it grows in the PNW, even when the root zone isn't protected from freezing. I expect it would grow in BC.

Also, its a common hedge. Some is growing in front of the Portland Art Museum.
posted by head full of air at 7:45 AM on February 28 [1 favorite]

Someone else who just hopped on the yaupon train.
posted by Halloween Jack at 9:48 AM on February 28

Interestingly, my work considers yaupon holly to be a pest species to be removed. Since its native to the Coastal Plain and not the Piedmont they could be considered to be technically right. But there are so many other invasive species (privet, honeysuckle, wisteria) that cause actual damage (nandina) it seems pretty pointless, especially since the fall line is less than fifty miles away.
posted by ockmockbock at 12:28 PM on February 28

Dwarf yaupons (Ilex vomitoria 'Nana') are a staple landscaping plant in Central and North Alabama - they can be trimmed into hedges, topiary, and borders without the problems inherent to boxwoods, namely spider mites and drought. They are very resilient in urban areas, and seem to tolerate ice storms and periodic flooding without much damage. Their foliage is a distinctive shade of green, so it tends to show out among gardenias, azaleas, hydrangeas and rhododendrons. They also have red berries in the fall.

Apparently, it is not forgotten in Birmingham, but I never heard of anyone making tea with them. The "vomitoria" part might be a little off-putting, if inaccurate, interpretation of the Latin classification. It is not an emetic.
posted by halfbuckaroo at 3:31 PM on February 28 [2 favorites]

I have spent a lot of time looking at online tea-drinker discussions, from the days of rec.tea onwards. Yaupon is a thing that occasionally comes up, and the Lost Pines people have been active in some places I read. They seem like nice people.

Yaupon needs 2000 years of selective breeding and R&D in cultivation and processing before it becomes a contender to replace tea though. I don't see anybody working on that. I think if you buy yaupon, it's wildcrafted (and, I would guess from how such things typically go, not very sustainably).
posted by Aardvark Cheeselog at 7:09 AM on March 1

After reading this article, Beloved Spouse and I went to our local hipster tea shop, who carry the 3 types from CatSpring. We picked up a small amount of each, and I'm currently sipping the second brew from a strainer full of the lightest blend. Consider me a convert.
posted by specialagentwebb at 9:31 AM on March 1

If you're thinking of adding yaupon to your yard I would strongly encourage you to get a weeping variety, they're really cool looking.
posted by saladin at 10:05 AM on March 1 [1 favorite]

I was telling my family about the tea and misremembered its name and searched for "youpon" instead and got much different results from what I was expecting. A different vowel makes a big difference.
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 12:31 PM on March 1 [1 favorite]

Mine came today and I’m sitting here with a cup of the dark roast. I like it! It’s a tiny bit smoky like lapsang souchong but not tannic at all. I honestly was not expecting the flavor to be so good.
posted by HotToddy at 10:38 AM on March 5

Mine came last week, and I'm enjoying it so far. Started with the green Yaupon Brothers variety. Slight grassy notes. Good on its own, but I tried it with milk as well (because why not?), and it was a pleasant brew. I've found regular tea a bit challenging since I gave up adding sugar to it, because there's nothing to mask the bitterness, but yaupon has no bitterness.

Not cheap per teabag, but I've reused the first one three times now, keeping it in a sealed container in the fridge, and it's still going - I'll see how many cups I can get out of it. It brings the price per cup down to something more reasonable.
posted by rory at 8:02 AM on March 8

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