- This article appeared in Sabal Minor, the monthly publication of the Florida Native Plant Society
Anyone who’s even remotely paying attention can see that vacant land in Florida is a hot commodity. The once pristine expanses of natural lands in Florida are now, on the whole, a coast-to-coast commercial cesspool.
There are exceptions, of course. Municipalities in some areas have doubled-down on conservation efforts, and grass-roots campaigns to protect and preserve sensitive habitats have seen real progress. However, little is often discussed about what businesses are doing to offset and mitigate environmental degradation.
The world has often been shaped by entrepreneurial ingenuity. Entrepreneurs experience the same problems and inconveniences as everyone else, but in them they also see opportunity. That’s what I saw in the diminutive Yaupon Holly, (Ilex vomitoria).
For those of you who don’t already know, Yaupon is the only caffeine-containing plant species to naturally occur in the United States. It’s endemic to the southeastern coastal plain and occurs widely in north and central Florida in a varied range of habitats. Yaupon can tolerate piney flatwoods and salty coastal dune systems with equal enthusiasm. It also occurs quite prolifically in the maritime hammocks of coastal Volusia County, where our Yaupon Brothers tea is harvested to this day. Yaupon is not a fan of fire, so it is very at home in the shaded and ancient hammocks, mostly an understory and mid-story shrub or small tree. Yaupon reaches heights of up to thirty feet and can attain great age. The indigenous Timucua people, who inhabited north and central Florida for at least a few thousand years, revered the Yaupon and so did the conquesting Spanish. The reason for their reverence is the same reason most of us cannonball coffee, tea and energy drinks on the regular---caffeine. Sweet, glorious nectar of productivity and insomnia.
To say that American consumers have a love affair with caffeinated beverages is an egregious understatement. When considering tea alone, (Camellia sinensis), Americans consumed over 150 million servings of tea each day in 2017, (EDIS). The resulting demand in tea imported to the U.S. that year exceeded 250,000 tons. All of that tea had to travel on ships for 8,000 miles to get here, and all the while we have a native plant species in Yaupon that can fill that caffeinated consumer niche.
What also presented as an opportunity was the chance to pitch Yaupon as a native plant for farmers to grow in place of more conventional crops. Agricultural activity is a major contributor to deforestation and pollution. Crops require large amounts of nutrient inputs, which eventually contaminate our waterways and cause algae blooms and other maladies. Florida is a farm-rich state, with over 9.45 million acres of the state dedicated to agriculture in 2017, (FDACS). Florida leads the nation in the production of at least seven types of crops and is in second place for at least five more. The most famous of these non-native monocultures is undoubtedly citrus.
Citrus, which was first brought to Florida by the Spanish centuries ago, became synonymous with Florida. In its heyday, Florida’s citrus crop injected $8 billion into Florida’s economy each year, and it employed approximately 80,000 people. However, the citrus industry has lost 60% of its value and yield over the past decade due to the bacterial pathogen, HLB, which is vectored by a psyllid fly. There is no cure for the resulting fatal disease, and this has Florida’s citrus growers on the rails. When the economic and environmental pressures on farmers are laid bare, a native crop choice really begins to make sense. Through our partnership with UF|IFAS, we’ve helped seven farms convert conventional non-native crops to Yaupon. This results in more control and agency for the farmer, and fewer inputs and nutrient pollution as a result of the tree’s flavor for Florida’s natural conditions.
And there is also wild-crafting, which is harvesting from wild Yaupon plants. Like many forest products, Yaupon can be managed using sustainable practices. For example, Yaupon Brothers does not harvest greater than fifty percent of a plant’s height and width. Mature plants over ten feet are not used for harvesting, nor are fruiting female plants which are an important food source for wildlife. In New Smyrna Beach, Yaupon Brothers owns twelve acres of certified organic maritime hammock. We’ve harvested there for the last four years and removed hundreds of invasive Brazilian Pepper trees and Coral Ardisia plants. We have a contract with the City of New Smyrna Beach to harvest from sixty-seven acres of hammock, and in exchange, we remove Brazilian Pepper from the area. We also propagate our trees for farms using material from these maritime hammocks, where the growing conditions result in a much larger leaf structure that makes them easier to process. All of the lands we own or harvest have been certified as organic, meaning fertilizers, pesticides, and other inputs are not used. We require that our partner farms also adopt the organic certification to ensure that we are owning up to our commitment to reduce nutrient pollution.
The takeaway is that consumers have the power to change the world with the choices they make and the products they choose to buy or not buy. We all vote with our credit cards. Yaupon Brothers has helped people see that great products can be made from indigenous plants and ingredients, which can reduce the negative impacts of food production. Consumers aren’t required to stop enjoying what they buy, and businesses shouldn’t assume that creating economic opportunities and supporting conservation are mutually exclusive. We can have our tea and drink it, too.
- Our new Florida Native Tea supports the Florida Native Plant Society. Find it here