By Amy Crowell
When it comes to caffeine, I prefer coffee for my fix. I’m addicted to everything about it, from the smell of fresh-ground beans and the taste, to the ritual of making it and the way it inspires me in the morning. I even enjoy a good, slow stroll down the bulk coffee aisle at the supermarket as part of the process. Unfortunately though, there’s nothing native or wild about growing, harvesting and processing coffee. When I want to turn toward a local, free and wild caffeine source, I turn to tea.
We have our very own native source of caffeine, and it so happens that the small, evergreen tree sometimes called yaupon holly (Ilex vomitoria) is a close relative of yerba maté (Ilex paraguariensis). I’m no connoisseur, but I do like the taste of tea, and the leaves of the yaupon holly make a darned good cup. While writing this column, I decided to skip my afternoon coffee for several days and replace it with a cup of what I call Yerba Tex-Maté. My afternoons turned out to be as productive as ever, and the yaupon holly buzz was more gentle and settling—much like any green tea. I was hooked and pleasantly surprised by how much better it felt to drink something that I had harvested and processed on my own. It also helped that I knew I was getting a hefty dose of antioxidants.
Yaupon holly is a small, fast-growing understory tree that grows wild just east of Austin and throughout East Texas, with some of its range spreading into the Hill Country. It’s multi-trunking, with small, forest-green leaves that are spaced alternately along spindly, white and gray branches. The leaves have gently toothed edges and are tough and leathery. The tree is commonly found growing under pine trees or post oaks and is usually decorated with fallen pine needles or post oak leaves. You can tell the female trees by the toxic red berries they produce.
Considered to be an invasive “trash tree” by some, yaupon holly is actually native and drought-resistant—making it a fabulous tree for our landscapes. It received the unfortunate species name vomitoria because early explorers observed ceremonies during which Native Americans would drink excessive amounts of the tea until they vomited.
Green Yerba Tex-Maté
The easiest way to harvest yaupon holly leaves is by snipping off branches of the tree and then hanging them in a pantry or another cool, dark, well-ventilated area to dry. Once the leaves are crispy, take them off the branches and store them whole in a glass jar or another airtight container. When you’re ready to drink some green tea, crumble the leaves to make about one tablespoon, place them in a tea strainer and pour one cup of hot water over the strainer in a mug. Let it steep for at least five minutes, then enjoy! And of course if you prefer sweetened tea, add your sweetener of choice.
Roasted Yerba Tex-Maté
There are many rituals and techniques involved when roasting yerba maté tea leaves to achieve various flavors and aromas. I never did find an exact recipe for roasting the leaves, but managed to garner enough hints to try roasting yaupon holly leaves on my own. First, I roasted some dried leaves in a 275 degree oven for 20 minutes. The resulting tea did not taste very different from the non-roasted leaves. But after roasting the leaves for about an hour, the aroma of the tea was smokier and the taste was more like a black tea. While I preferred the greener-tasting tea, roasting and mixing the leaves with other herbs might be necessary to achieve a tea that is just right for you. And the nice thing about harvesting and processing your own is that you can experiment and develop your own special roast and blend.
It eases my mind to know that there is a viable, tasty caffeine source abundantly growing in our area. If the price of coffee keeps climbing, I might have to replace my morning cup with Yerba Tex-Maté.