Richard Bogren, Kirk-Ballard, Heather
LSU AgCenter Horticulturist
(05/31/19) Yaupon holly is probably best known these days for its use as an ornamental evergreen in the landscape. The shrub is a native of the southeastern United States and it grows from Virginia to Arkansas, Texas to Florida and in most Southern states in low wetlands, swamps and sandy pinelands in USDA hardiness zones 7-9.
Yaupon holly is used as a year-round landscape feature because of its tiny, oblong evergreen leaves, delicate white flowers in spring and beautiful red berries in fall and winter. Flowers are tiny and clustered and a favorite of bees and butterflies. The flowers have a sweet nectar. Additionally, it is a larval host for the Henry’s Elfin butterfly.
In residential landscapes, the large shrub can be trained to a tree form by selecting a single trunk or grown as a hedge with its densely branched form by placing several plants close together. They can grow up to 25 feet tall and 15 feet wide, but on average they grow 10 feet by 6 feet.
Yaupon hollies are tolerant of a wide range of soils and can grow in full sun to shade. Flowers and berries are more prominent on those placed in full sun. They are also tolerant of the alkaline soils in many Louisiana parishes, such as the Baton Rouge area.
Shrubs are dioecious, meaning the male and female reproductive structures are on separate plants, so flowers and fruit will only be found on female plants. Those planted in sunny areas will have the most flowers and fruit. Those found commercially in nurseries are typically female because of the presence of flowers and berries, but they must have a male to cross-pollinate and produce fruit. The bark adds another aesthetically pleasing element with its pale gray bark with white patches.
The gorgeous red berries are eaten by many species of birds, and the fruiting branches have been used as holiday decorations in the wintertime when berries are present. The dark green foliage and bright red berries make beautiful table arrangements or can be tucked into wreaths and garland.
Yaupon is easy to grow, tolerates drought, has a low water usage, but it will also tolerate poor drainage. It is densely branched, so it grows well as a hedge and can tolerate severe pruning. Additionally, some cultivars sport interesting characteristics such as a weeping form, dwarf varieties and those that grow columnar.
So what does any of this have to do with caffeine? Well, the leaves of the yaupon holly contain caffeine. Actually, the leaves have been shown to contain more caffeine by weight than coffee beans or green tea and are also less bitter. In addition to its central nervous system-stimulating properties, the leaves are high in antioxidants and have anti-inflammatory properties.
Historically, in the United States, yaupon holly tea was used by Southeastern Indian tribes during tribal ceremonies. During the ceremonies they would drink large quantities of the tea that they made from a combination of the berries, leaves and other ingredients that induced vomiting. It was thought of as a purifying ritual. That’s where the plant got its scientific name Ilex vomitoria, for the vomiting it was thought to induce. However, it is important to note that the berries and leaves do not actually induce vomiting. It was self-induced or attributed to other ingredients in the ceremonial tea.
The tea was also shared with early settlers who called the tea “the black drink.” And during the Civil War, Southerners drank yaupon holly tea when tea and coffee were scarce. The tea continued to be consumed into the late 19th century, but for reasons unknown, likely socioeconomic or cultural reasons, consumption decreased.
The tea can still be enjoyed today and is sold in specialty markets. Many Asian countries continue to use the tea, and a South American cousin called yerba maté is made from the holly Ilex paraguariensis. The tea is similar in flavor and quality to that made from yaupon holly.
Today, yaupons are used for their ornamental landscape qualities. They are a great foundation shrub or small tree for year-round green color, and they support wildlife by attracting both birds and pollinators. They are a great addition to the landscape and handy for creating winter holiday décor.
If you want to try to make tea and judge its quality for yourself, first make sure it is a yaupon holly with a positive identification. The leaves can be used fresh or dried and stored like any herbal tea. The leaves can be parched in the oven at 350-400 degrees and then brewed into a tea by steeping a few leaves for a few minutes. Strain out the leaves and enjoy. Or you could try to find some online or in a specialty tea store.
Yaupon holly can be used as a foundation planting, hedge or specimen plant. LSU AgCenter file photo
Yaupon holly blooms occur in early to midspring. Photo by Jeff McMillian, USDA-NRCS plants database
Yaupon holly berries are bright red and appear from late fall through winter. Photo by Jeff McMillian, USDA-NRCS plants database