Orlando Sentinel - October 16, 2016
Joy Wallace Dickinson
I recently saw a humorous birthday card depicting a woman of a certain age, wrapped in a fuzzy bathrobe, who appears poised to pour an entire pot of coffee directly into her mouth. As a shameless caffeine addict, I could relate.
And I loved learning about the revival of a caffeine-rich drink with roots deep in Florida's history: yaupon holly tea.
"It's the only caffeinated plant native to North America," says Bryon White, who with his brother, Kyle, reintroduced centuries-old yaupon tea into Florida commerce in 2012 for the first time in more than 100 years, according to the website for Yaupon Brothers American Tea.
"Both of us are University of Central Florida guys," White says; "Kyle is a current student, and I'm an alumnus." Their company is based in New Smyrna Beach.
White has a master's degree in criminal justice but he's also fascinated by ethnobotany. "I'm kind of a plant nerd," he says, and he knows plenty about the history of this native shrub, which is also rich in anti-oxidants.
The Black Drink Crier
Although yaupon grows elsewhere, it;s surely a "quintessential old Florida thing," White notes.
Yaupon was one of the main ingredients from which Seminoles and earlier native peoples concocted the "black drink" that was so important in their ceremonies.
In fact, the name of the most famous Native American in Florida history — Osceola — is an Anglicized version of "Asi-yaholo," which meant something like "Black Drink Crier." The "asi" is the part that meant the drink. (The Spanish called the tea "cassina.")
This cup of tea was a serious business. It was an honor to be named Black Drink Crier; it didn't just refer to a guy who poured a mean caffeine drink — Osceola as barista.
'Worst P.R. in the universe'
But the way the Indians used the black drink — at least as settlers of European origin described it — has given yaupon a bit of a bad rap.
During purification rituals, Seminole men "would boil the drink to excess and drink it to excess," says Peggy Sias Lantz, author of "Florida's Edible Wild Plants: A Guide to Collecting Cooking" (2014).
Besides making the black drink incredibly strong, it's also likely that the Seminoles and other Indian groups added additional, toxic native plants to their yaupon brew to achieve the purgative effects they sought.
By the way, yaupon is pronounced "YO-ponn," says Lantz, a longtime resident of the Woodsmere area in west Orange who really knows her Florida history as well as her native plants.
Because the natives chugged the extremely strong "black drink" on an empty stomach, seeking purification, the poor yaupon holly was given the Latin name "Ilex vomitoria" in the late 18th century by no less than William Aiton (1731–1793), Scottish botanist and gardener to King George III at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.
That Latin name is "the worse P.R. in the universe," White jokes. And I'll admit, because of the stories about the black drink's purgative effects, when I was first offered a taste of yaupon iced tea a couple of years ago, I was a little apprehensive — and then surprised. It's good stuff.
As Lantz notes in "Florida's Edible Wild Plants," when the leaves of the yaupon holly (not the berries) are brewed lightly as one would with any other tea, they make "a quite delectable tea." Yaupon is especially good as iced tea, White notes.
Southerners turned to yaupon tea especially during the Civil War and at other times when coffee and tea were hard to get, he says.
Now, Yaupon Brothers maintains partnerships with Florida farmers to cultivate the holly leaves, the company's website notes; the White brothers cultivate their own shade-grown yaupon on a12-acre farm in Volusia County.
Many folks like the fact that "it's grown right in their backyard," says White. To learn more, visit yauponbrothers.com.
Joy Wallace Dickinson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, FindingJoyinFlorida.com, or by good old-fashioned letter at the Sentinel, 633 N. Orange Ave., Orlando, FL 32801.