I have a yaupon tree in my backyard. Today I picked its leaves, roasted them, boiled them, and drank the tea that was produced. The Karankawa, the Gulf Coast Native Americans I study, regularly did the same a couple hundred years ago.
Some folks believe this yaupon tea is the same beverage consumed during the Karankawas male-only purification ceremonies in which puking was standard fare. As one writer describes, “warriors poured vast amounts of this vile liquor down their throats until they began to sweat profusely and vomit.” With the yaupon holly having the scientific name Ilex vomitoria, the tea does seem like a natural contender in inducing vomitting. Fortunately, my stomach and I had no such experience.
Yaupon is the only tree native to Texas that naturally produces caffeine and the tea made with its leaves provides about as much punch as a small cup of coffee. It isn’t something that should ever make you hurl. Alice Oliver, in Albert Gatschet’s history of the Karankawa, witnessed a band of Karankawa drinking this beverage and it “never seemed to produce any visible effect upon the Indians.” Cabeza de Vaca, who also observed the brewing of this type of tea, makes no mention of it causing vomiting in his narrative, only that the men spit out the drink if a woman moved during the ceremony. Even Gaspar de Solis, in his notoriously biased account of the Karankawa, makes no remark of yaupon tea causing vomiting. Instead, I believe that another beverage, one that was limited to these purification ceremonies and consisted of different ingredients, is probably the drink with the emetic properties.
Even though the leaves on the yaupon tree are safe to brew, the red berries that speckle its branches are less so. Henri Joutel, a prominent member of Sieur de La Salle’s ill-fated expedition into Karankawa territory, wrote about what happened when a few of his starving men overindulged themselves on what was probably yaupon fruit.
“I noticed that the men were gathering a fruit or grain resembling small reddish-yellow beans that they were eating. I had difficulty making them abstain. Those who ate the fruit became sick, vomiting for one or two hours afterwards until they vomited blood. The next day they were incapacitated.”
The yaupon fruit isn’t supposed to be as toxic as Joutel makes out, but seeing as the men who ate it were starving, and likely ate an abundance of the berries, the effects certainly seemed to have been compounded. With this in mind, it makes much more sense that if the Karankawa wished to induce vomiting they would not drink the mild yaupon leaf tea, but instead drink a beverage that included these “small reddish-yellow beans” be it yaupon or mountain laurel berries.
Jean-Baptiste Talon, who as a young boy was captured by the Karankawa, verifies this notion in an interview he gave about his time in captivity. He comments directly on the two distinct and different versions of beverages the Karankawa brew:
“[The Karankawa] are given to drunkenness (because they make liquors that intoxicate almost like wine)….one of these liquors is made with a sort of red bean, which they chew and soak in water [yaupon or mountain laurel berries]. It is their opinion that its use renders them more supple and fleet of foot. Therefore they drink it to such excess that they vomit several times, drinking and vomiting alternately without pause. They make still another beverage with some leaves….these leaves are boiled in water and churned like chocolate, so that it also makes much froth and they drink it very hot [yaupon leaf tea]. They drink of it especially after they have walked a great distance [probably meaning it was used as a ceremonial sign of good will with another band or tribe or maybe he is just saying it is refreshing].”
Two types of tea can be made from the yaupon tree; one far more enjoyable than the other.
- Find a yaupon tree. (Pictured below. Note the jagged edges of the leaves. The possum haw looks quite similar to yaupon but it doesn’t have jagged and sharp leaves)
- Pick the youngest leaves you can find until you have two handfuls or so. (~1 tablespoon)
- Grind the leaves a bit.
- Roast the leaves. (I did so in the oven at 350*)
- When they are crispy at the touch, take those bad boys out.
- Boil the leaves in 2 cups of water until it turns a dark brown/green.
- Drink it hot.
Note – They actually sell yaupon tea at H-E-B under the brand Catspring Yaupon.
How does it taste? Really just like any other green tea.
Texas Reader, The Cannibals’ Tea
Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, Relacion de los Naufragios (Account of the Disasters: Also known as “La Relación”)
Jean-Baptiste and Pierre Talon, Voyage to the Mississippi Through the Gulf of Mexico
Henri Joutel and William C. Foster (editor), The La Salle Expedition to Texas: The Journal of Henri Joutel, 1684-1687
Albert Gatschet, The Karankawa Indians: The Coast People of Texas
Gaspar de Solis, The Solis Diary of 1767