What is Yaupon?
Yaupon, Cassina, Cassena, Carolina tea, South Sea tea
Ilex vomitoria Ait. (Ilex cassine Walt.)Family: Aquifoliaceae
Description: This plant is a small tree or shrub that grows abundantly in the Southeast Coastal region. Diagnostic features include elliptic, evergreen leaves with crenate margins. The glossy leaves occur in an alternate pattern along the stem. White flowers appear in the spring and the fruit ripens in the fall. The red to yellowish berries remain on the plant throughout the winter.
Range: Yaupon is widespread along the Coast from Southeastern Virginia (from Northampton County south) south to Northern Florida, west to Texas.
Habitat: It occurs predominately in Maritime Forests and other dry sandy habitats along the coast such as sand dunes, margins of tidal marshes.
Harvest/Collection: Leaves can be collected year-round. However, the young tender leaves are preferable to older, thus, collection in the spring is the best time to harvest leaves. Native tribes reportedly collected leaves near the end of the winter. New growth does occur in January-February and leaves can easily be collected during this time of year.
Uses and Properties: The Southeast Indian tribes in the United States were the first to collect and use Cassena tea. It was a revered and sacred herb that was used during ceremonies and often daily, especially in the winter. The Creeks used the plant in their green corn ceremony during the early summer. Cassena reportedly helped to cleanse away sins, return innocence, ensure harmonious friendship/communion, and give soldiers prowess during wars. The leaves were dried over a fire and boiled for several hours until the tea turned a dark black color. During ceremonies, the strong tea known as “black drink” was poured in a lightening whelk, emperor helmet, or a horse conch shell. The Indians would drink several glasses until vomiting occurred. The emetic qualities of the herb are only experienced from a strong black tea, not from a simple brew. After European contact, the tea was collected and traded across the Southeast.
This is the only plant in the Southeast that naturally contains caffeine; the leaves have 0.32 to 1.67% caffeine. It is truly unbelievable how such a pleasant tasting caffeinated tea could go unused and unnoticed for so long. This tea should and will hopefully resurface in popularity across the globe.
Historical uses: it was used for diabetes, colds, gout, and small-pox. Brackish water was purified in North Carolina by boiling Yaupon leaves. The leaf decoction was also used to bathe patients with fevers in the low country.