Yaupon Holly

YAUPON HOLLY: Wildlife Food AND Healthy Coffee Alternative

If you ever drive down to St. Marks Wildlife Refuge during the winter months, it’s hard not to notice the Yaupon holly, Ilex vomitoria. The bright, cherry-red berries provide a shock of color along the roadsides in the otherwise dull winter landscape.

The shrubs are less noticeable the rest of the year with their small, oval, dark evergreen leaves. Their dense and shrubby evergreen growth make them ideal for screens or hedges while also providing habitat for songbirds and other wildlife.

Yaupons are easy to grow, salt-tolerant, and reach 20 to 25 feet tall. They tolerate full sun to shade, but produce more berries in full sun. The weeping variety has down-turned branches and a beautiful shape that makes a stunning show when planted alone as a specimen plant. I planted one by my garden gate last year.

I love the shape of the weeping Yaupon and I love to use the red-berried branches for holiday decorating, but I didn't just plant it for aesthetic reasons. As a native plant, Yaupon holly has an ecological role to play as a functioning member of our local ecosystems. Pollinators flock to its masses of tiny white flowers in spring, and birds eat the berries that follow the flowers. Most importantly, our native insects feed on these plants they have evolved with, providing protein rich meals (in the form of themselves) for birds and other wildlife.

The wildlife, however, are not the only ones eating it. The prime reason I planted my Yaupon was for its caffeine rich leaves. By weight, the leaves contain more caffeine than both coffee beans and green tea —the highest caffeine content of any plant native to North America. Yaupon holly is also high in antioxidants and less bitter than green tea. It is a close cousin of the South American yerba maté (Ilex paraguariensis) and its tea is similar in flavor and quality.

Yaupon holly tea has been historically used by Native American tribes for both recreation and ceremony. Early white settlers knew the tea as "the black drink." The Seminoles used it ceremonially, boiling it to excess and drinking it to excess, causing vomiting and diarrhea which they felt was purifying. This is where the name Ilex vomitoria originates from. When brewed lightly, however, as you would any other tea, it is pleasant and harmless. During the Civil War, Southerners substituted Yaupon holly tea for coffee and black tea.

Leaves and stems of Yaupon holly may be used fresh, dried or roasted and stored like any dried herbal tea. They were traditionally parched to a dark brown over a fire. I follow the recipe taught to me by St. Marks Ranger Scott Davis, an experienced wild food forager. It is extremely important you positively identify the plant you harvest as Ilex vomitoria; if you are at all unsure, consult an expert.

Yaupon Holly Tea

Recipe by Scott Davis

1. Collect younger leaves and new twigs. Though older green leaves are usable, they contain smaller concentrations of caffeine. To harvest leaves from older stems, grasp the stem near the trunk and slide the hand outward to strip off the leaves.

2. Allow to dry, or dehydrate for quicker results.

3. Bake leaves (to activate caffeine) at 300 degrees for 8 minutes. Baking longer will produce a black tea variety, as opposed to a less-oxidized green tea.

4. Options: Dicing the leaves (with a knife or blender) prior to steeping will enhance caffeine activation. Add other ingredients at this point if you like, such as mint leaves. I love yaupon & mint tea.

5. Steep in hot water for a few minutes, then strain out the leaves. I like to use my French press, but you could also run it through a coffee machine (1 tablespoon = 1 cup).

Autumn and Winter Berries Attract Flocks of Birds

The bright red berries of Yaupon olly provide abundant food for birds and are useful for holiday decorating. Photo by Lilly Anderson-Messec

The bright red berries of Yaupon olly provide abundant food for birds and are useful for holiday decorating. Photo by Lilly Anderson-Messec

Bird feeding is an enjoyable hobby; it gives us many hours of enjoyment watching birds up close just outside the window. However, I get even more satisfaction when I observe a bird dining on berries or seeds of trees and shrubs that we have planted in our yard. At our last home, we planted an American beautyberry shrub outside our bedroom window. Each autumn it produced many bright purple berries. One December morning, my daughter and I watched a hermit thrush, a male and a female cardinal and a whitethroated sparrow all feeding at once in this beautiful shrub. That was a colorful sight I will always remember.

Yaupon holly is another favorite of mine. We often see large flocks of robins and cedar waxwings feasting on its shiny translucent red berries. Weeping yaupon is a cultivated form of yaupon that makes a pretty accent plant in the landscape. Savannah and East Palatka hollies are also stunning this time of year. Plant hollies in sun for best fruit production.

The red fruit of the flowering dogwood is among the first to be eaten by both birds and squirrels. Remember to plant your dogwood in good, well-drained soil in some shade. They become stressed when planted in full sun.

Many years ago, we planted a native highbush blueberry just outside our home office window. Every summer, we enjoy watching cardinals and mockingbirds selecting ripe berries; I am happy to share the delicious bounty with them.

There are many other great berry producing native plants that birds love – magnolia, wax myrtle, cherry laurel, and viburnum to name just a few. Cabbage palms, bluestem palmettos and saw palmettos also produce fruit for birds and other wildlife. In early October, my husband Jody and I walked along a short trail at St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge that was naturally lined with cabbage palms loaded with ripe fruit. We saw at least 8 catbirds, lots of boat-tailed grackles, a red-bellied woodpecker and a thrush feasting on the berries and a yellowthroat and other birds in and amongst the thicket of cedar, yaupon and palm.

A word of caution: choose your non-native fruiting plants carefully. Many, like the Chinese tallow tree, may be beautiful and attract a multitude of birds. Unfortunately, the birds spread the seeds and the trees take hold outside of your yard in natural areas of forest and wetland crowding out Florida's native species and upsetting the balance of nature.