This species of holly is an evergreen shrub and can be found throughout the southeast. It flowers in April and May and produces red berries in September and October. These berries are generous food source for birds, armadillo, black bear, fox, raccoon and more.
The plant is hardy can can thrive in salt spray, sandy soil, constant wind, harsh sunlight, and high temperatures. They are often found on streambanks, in dunes, woodlands and floodplains. All of these conditions mean it flourishes in the Ogeechee River basin.
Ossabaw Island, bounded to the north by the Ogeechee River, plays an important role in the history of yaupon. Yaupon is the only plant native to the Americas that contains caffeine. Early native populations made tea from its dried leaves and there are some stories of them using its berries in ceremonies and to see visions.
The popularity of the yaupon’s effects made it a traded commodity. Evidence of yaupon tea has been found as far afield as Cahokia, Illinois, near the Mississippi River. One of the places where yaupon could be harvested was Ossabaw Island. It was so plentiful that the Creek Indians named the island ‘asapo’, which translates as “land of holly” or “holly growing place.” There is evidence of natives used Ossabaw as a seasonal village, for harvesting yaupon and other foods, dating back at least 4,000 years.
Yaupon tea never gained popularity over traditional camellia sinesis tea when Europeans began moving to the colonies, but it has many similar properties. It contains antioxidants and caffeine, though its tannic properties are slightly different. There are reports of it being used as a substitute for coffee and tea during the Civil War. It eventually fell out of favor socially because it was readily available and became associated with poor, rural people.
Yaupon tastes similar to a light black or a green tea. Some local restaurants and beverage companies are now “rediscovering” the tea drink.