Yaupon, a seemingly innocuous—though determined—little plant that, though it has been somewhat maligned and misunderstood over the decades, even centuries, is making a comeback in a big way. The caffeinated plant’s revival is thanks in part to one Texas business, whose mission is to share the wonder of this domestic tea with the world: CatSpring Yaupon.
What is Yaupon?
Yaupon Holly is the only caffeinated plant native to North America. Yaupon is a tree-like shrub that grows all along the east coast of the United States but into West Texas, flourishing in wet, swampy regions and also the driest conditions imaginable.
In fact, it was during the infamous Texas drought of 2011 when Abianne Falla, founder of CatSpring Yaupon, first discovered the plant. She watched as 100-year-old oaks dried up and died in the brutal conditions on her family’s farm. During this time, water scarcity was a daily topic of conversation and crops were suffering. But one day, as she peered out over the land, one shrubby, green yaupon plant continued to thrive despite it all.
Falla became curious how this plant could make it through the drought when sturdier, heartier foliage could not. This query prompted her to start researching the yaupon and to uncover its history and culture and the sweet tea it produces.
It was once a popular beverage among indigenous communities who knew how to live off the land and which plants contained medicinal or beneficial properties. They, in turn, shared it with traders (and, unfortunately, invaders) from Spain and Europe who took the plant and the tea produced by steeping its hearty green leaves back to their native lands. But with the eradication and forced relocation of so many tribes and indigenous people groups, the plant and its uses were largely forgotten.
Between brief resurgences during the Civil War and World War II, yaupon was used as a coffee substitute during times of strict rationing. Now, with the recent popularity of nutritional and scientific studies at universities across the country, yaupon seems to be staging a comeback.
Because yaupon is the only naturally occurring caffeinated plant in the country, it is the only one that does not have to be imported. It grows right here in Texas, so the carbon footprint becomes even smaller for Texans open to tea alternatives. And to top it all off, CatSpring Yaupon even practices responsible harvesting.
Instead of operating a farm with acres of sprayers, irrigation systems, and pesticides, Falla partners with local farmers who have an overabundance of yaupon holly—which can be a nuisance plant to farmers—to let her harvest it from their land.
As Falla said, “Sustainability is about more than the land. That’s why we’re more committed than ever to creating change in our communities, too.” This is why CatSpring Yaupon hires marginalized individuals—mirroring yaupon’s own history—to support the community.
Falla works with probation officers in rural communities to hire individuals who want their futures to look different than their pasts, along with women with a history of generational poverty, to work in their packaging plant. Falla hires these individuals with empathy, understanding, and with a flexible schedule in an attempt to not only offer a paycheck but also an opportunity to break the cycle and help ensure the employees’ next crisis does not mean the end of their employment.
“We hope to be an example to other small businesses and larger companies of the difference an understanding employer can make in the lives of our employees. To me, it makes sense: there are so many individuals in our community that are marginalized and not fully recognized for their value. Why would we build our company any other way?”
Sustainability aside, yaupon is also full of health benefits, from antioxidants to immune-boosting phytochemicals, cholesterol-reducing components, and mood-boosting elements. The plant has been shown to prevent cell death, be an effective anti-inflammatory, improve blood pressure, and even maintain blood sugar levels. The caffeine it contains is even impressive: instead of giving you the jitters like coffee sometimes can, it offers a more relaxed, focused boost of energy.
With a mild, earthy flavor that is even slightly sweet, it is completely devoid of tannins, the compound in tea that makes it bitter. Yaupon does not have to be cut with milk or sugar to be drinkable and is not so finicky about how long it has been left to steep.
In fact, “It’s virtually impossible to over steep,” Falla said. The longer you steep the tea, the more flavor that will be pulled out of the leaves., Steep the same leaves over and over again throughout the day and the sipping experience will remain virtually unchanged.
How to Make It
When you are ready to brew a cup yourself, “There’s no wrong way to do it,” Falla said. She suggested steeping your first brew for four minutes, then increasing to seven minutes the second time around, adding a few minutes for every subsequent steep. Or, simply keep adding hot water to your mug and tea bag all day.
Prefer a cold beverage during hot Texas summers? Steep four to six tea bags in a pitcher of water overnight and in the morning, you will have delicious and refreshing iced tea. If you want to spice it up a bit, Falla said plenty of ingredients go well with yaupon, but her favorite add-ins are fresh mint or ginger.
The tea can be purchased in a loose-leaf form or in tea bags and comes in three flavors or roasts: Marfa, a dark roast reminiscent of black tea; Lost Maples, a smooth and mild-medium roast; and Pedernales, a light and refreshing green yaupon. CatSpring Yaupon tea can be ordered for shipping all over Texas (and the world) through their website and is also sold at Central Market.