Museum of the Albemarle: Yaupon tea was Carolina’s first popular homespun beverage

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Tea made from the yaupon holly bush (Ilex vomitoria Ait) has been used by Native Americans for thousands of years. Figuring prominently in the natives’ social and mythological lives, this tea was consumed all across North America.

During travels in the early 18th century, English naturalist and explorer John Lawson recorded the tea’s preparation and use among North Carolina Indians by saying:

“This Plant is the Indian Tea, us’d and approv’d by all the savages on the coast of Carolina, and from them sent to the Westward Indians, and sold at a considerable price. All which they cure after the same way, as they do for themselves; which is thus: They take this plant (not only the Leaves, but the smaller Twigs along with them) and bruise it in a mortar, till it becomes blackish, the Leaf being wholly defaced:

“Then they take it out, put it into one of their earthen pots which is over the fire, till it smokes; stirring it all the time, till it is cur’d. Others take it, after it is bruis’d, and put it into a bowl, to which they put live coals, and cover them with the Yaupon, till they have done smoking, often turning them over. After all, they spread it upon their mats, and dry it in the sun to keep it for use.

“The Spaniards in New-Spain have this plant very plentifully on the coast of Florida, and hold it in great esteem. Sometimes they cure it as the Indians do; or else beat it to a powder, so mix it, as coffee; yet before they drink it, they filter the same. They prefer it above all liquids, to drink with physick, to carry the same safely and speedily thro’ the passages, for which it is admirable, as I myself have experimented.”

Brewing and drinking yaupon tea was readily adopted by early European settlers. It became so popular among Spanish colonists that a Spanish priest reported in 1615 “there is no Spaniard or Indian who does not drink it every day in the morning or evening.”

By the late 17th and 18th centuries, English settlers in the Carolinas also were consuming large amounts of the beverage, called “black drink” or “cassina” in South Carolina and “yaupon” in North Carolina.

Europeans presumably found its taste agreeable; it appeared in 18th-century markets in England, where it was called “Carolina” tea, and France, where it was called “Appalachina.”

Despite its initial popularity in Europe, consumption of yaupon tea ceased both in the United States and abroad by the late 19th century. Its disappearance was perhaps a result of tea and coffee suppliers ruining its reputation in an effort to keep their profits up.

The drink made a brief return in popularity on the North Carolina coast during World War II where rationing limited access to usual sources of caffeine like coffee.

You can learn more about tea and its history beginning in late September as the museum opens its newest exhibit about tea, “Steeped in Time.”