From the James River in Virginia to the Rio Grande in Texas, there’s a powerful crop masquerading as a weed. A lot of landowners burn the yaupon brush, calling it an invasive species. Others pay professionals to remove the effusive plant. Nick Panzarella and his friends are about to make tea out of it.
The 26-year-old Kingwood native and his crew will spend the morning romping around his uncle’s “gentleman’s farm” in New Caney, about 30 miles north of downtown Houston. Sitting on several acres, the land is home to a field, a barn, a bright yellow house, a handful of grazing cows, some citrus trees and a plant known by many names: holly, cassina and yaupon, to list a few.
What many don’t realize about yaupon, a plant often used as either kindling or a Christmas decoration, is that it’s the only caffeine-containing species indigenous to North America. That “weed” packs a punch on par with a cup of coffee or tea, and entrepreneurs like Panzarella are hoping to unleash its profit-making potential in an time when locally made goods are the market gold-standard.
After a few hours of chopping at what looks like either a skinny tree or an ebullient bush, they will strip the leaves and branches from the trunk and haul off the yield for a secret roasting, brewing and bottling process.
Then Panzarella will load his car with as many cases of his Wild South Tea as possible and ride around making deliveries or sales pitches. With the help of a far-reaching network of family and friends, Panzarella has stocked the shelves of nearly 40 stores with the Texas-made tea that he plans to turn into “a national staple.”
For hundreds of years, North American yaupon was just that. Native Americans from the Catawba of North Carolina, from whose language the name yaupon is derived, to the Karankawa of Galveston drank the tea for social, medicinal and ritualistic purposes. Europeans initially misjudged yaupon as an emetic after watching Native American men drink the tea and vomit during purification rituals. Botanists went on to erroneously classify yaupon with the Latin name ilex vomitoria, but medical experts, scientists and historians have since come to the overwhelming conclusion that the tea was not the root cause of the puking.
Colonizers who observed and, in many instances, eradicated Native Americans, also took to drinking yaupon tea. Non-native people consumed it from the sixteenth century, when European ships crashed the east coast, through the Civil War. Some folks in the southeastern states where the plant flourishes continued to drink it, but those tea parties have been few and far between.
Modern historians and yaupon tea makers often blame a limp market for the demise of yaupon tea. Charles Hudson, author of Black Drink, a seminal text on yaupon tea, wrote “the demise of cassina…was far more likely caused by the economic pressures of tea and coffee merchants,” but acknowledged that “the factors that led to the decline of cassina are complex.”
Owners of CatSpring Yaupon, another Texas-based tea company, claim that yaupon “was brewed for centuries by Native Americans. And then… It was forgotten. Left behind by the business of modernity.” If by business of modernity they mean the genocide of Native Americans and their customs, then sure.
Americans trying to forge an industry with yaupon tea is not a recent phenomenon. Almost a century ago George Mitchell, the so-called “tea expert for Uncle Sam,” led a campaign to prove yaupon’s profit-making power. Under Mitchell’s direction, the USDA Bureau of Chemistry (now the Food and Drug Administration) determined that yaupon could serve as a “palatable and pleasant” substitute for coffee or tea.
Mitchell and his team set up an experimental yaupon factory in South Carolina, where they concluded that the tea was cheap and easy to make, and that the plant’s wide geographic dispersion would make for easy distribution.
“There is also room on our national menu for another drink — particularly one of the made-in-America type,” reported the Houston Post in an article about Mitchell’s findings.
Shortly thereafter, Mitchell and his team demoed their product at the 1922 Charleston County Fair. For two weeks customers sipped hot tea and a carbonated beverage made from yaupon. They loved it.
It seemed a surefire bet for the next All-American beverage, but it never became a household staple like Coke or coffee.
But now, Houston’s rising demand for locally sourced food and drink would make yaupon tea seem a shoo-in for HEB’s Texas-made seal of approval. And as the farmers market scene grows so too does the number of farms in the Houston city limits and the demand for community-centric fare like that served at Local Foods, a small but thriving mini-chain with locations scattered throughout more affluent parts of the city.
Local Foods chef-partner Dylan Murray described a system that privileges homegrown goods as “a perfect circle.”
“The guy who lives in town grows the food and I buy it, and then I sell it to you and you eat it and that money goes to us, and then we spend more of that money paying that farmer back,” explained Murray. “The money stays in the local economy.”
Yaupon tea sellers across the country extol the socioeconomic virtues of backyard beverages. In an article for Fresh Cup Magazine, CatSpring founders Abianne Falla and Jennadee Detro raved about how their product promises “to create fresh-start job opportunities to members of their local community in Texas.”
ASI Tea in Georgia points out their product’s American-made virtues in a paragraph written beneath a blurb about the tea’s Native American history. Just a click away is another page advertising ASI’s mission to “celebrat[e] native foodways” — a goal that Panzarella shares.
The entrepreneur sees the crossover between local and historical roots as one of yaupon’s major selling points. “There’s all these foodways — native American foodways that are basically Texan foodways that no one is looking at, no one has paid attention to. So I thought this is a really simple, slam-dunk product,” he said.
The language used to present his product matters to Panzarella, who majored in linguistics and studied Native American languages at Tulane University. Nowadays, when he’s not brokering tea deals with vendors, he volunteers with WikiTongues, a project that aims to preserve languages. Panzarella tries to avoid using yaupon’s native roots as a marketing ploy.
“I’m not Native American. None of my employees are Native American and so we don’t want to sell this as Native American tea,” he explained.
Panzarella describes himself as “kind of obsessed with Native American culture,” which is perhaps the reason why one type of product he sells on the Wild South Tea website is cups commissioned to look like the drinking vessels from which Native Americans in Illinois consumed yaupon tea.
Some would consider the commodification of Native American mugs an act of appropriation. Panzarella acknowledged the discrepancy between his desire to refrain from using exploitative language in marketing his tea and his selling of the native-inspired products.
“I guess you can argue that there is no difference, but I think the way I see it is that was the way it was traditionally drank and so this is a continuation of a product that has traditionally been drank in the United States for a long time.”
For hundreds if not thousands of years yaupon has played a role in the lives of the humans who share the plant’s ecosystem. Before the foliage growing on Panzarella’s family land became his treasure, it was probably someone’s trash. And before that, it was likely someone else’s tea.
Now, in an era where sustainable goods are all the rage, it seems that yaupon tea might finally take off as a popular product in the American market. But will that success come with a cost?
Homegrown goods sell at a higher price than their mass-produced counterparts, putting them out of reach for folks like the hundreds of thousands of Native Americans who live in poverty. And with the consideration of native foodways comes the historical baggage of the genocide that erased Native American customs and made it necessary to revitalize those foodways.
Some yaupon tea makers put this into perspective when presenting their product. Others don’t.