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Jane's Garden 7/6/14: Coffee, tea, cocoa — and Weeping Yaupon

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Florida has its own caffeine-loaded plant

Born in England, I grew up on tea. Tea is properly brewed in a teapot by pouring boiling, 212 degree water over fermented Camellia sinensis tea leaves and letting it steep for several minutes to bring out the aroma, flavor and caffeine alkaloid. Green tea leaves are dried or withered without fermenting. Camellia sinensis originally evolved in China. To Brits, anything other than Camellia tea is called herbal tea, infusion or tisaine.

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Coffea arabica originated in the southwest highlands of Ethiopia in Africa, where it has been cultivated for more than 1,000 years. It has also been found growing naturally in the nearby Afromontane rainforests of northern Kenya and southern Sudan. Coffea canephora ‘Robusta,’ a different species, has twice the caffeine content of Arabica. Caffeine is bitter, so ‘Robusta’ is considerably more bitter than Arabica.

In coffee shrubs, caffeine is concentrated in the drupe fruit, commercially called cherry. Inside each cherry are two endosperm seeds called beans. Roasted beans were first used by Arab scholars in Yemen. An herbal tea brewed from coffee leaves is still a traditional drink in Ethiopia.

Thebroma cocoa evolved in tropical America within 20 degrees latitude of the equator. Cocoa beans are the source of chocolate. Archeological evidence shows cocoa hs been used in Honduras since 1500 B.C. Raw Cocoa is rich in antioxidants, including flavonoids, procyanidins and epicatechin. The cocoa stimulant teobromine is less diuretic than the theophylline found in Camellia tea.

Today tea, coffee and cocoa are widely used, caffiene-loaded plants. But a native plant containing caffeine has been used for millennia in Florida.

Yaupon Holly, Ilex vomitoria, is an upright, dense-leaved evergreen shrub, 8 to 25 feet tall, prevalent in wetlands, hammocks, swamps, floodplains and dunes from the Florida peninsula north to New Jersey and west to Texas in temperate zones 7-10. British colonists in the southeast coastal plain dried, brewed, drank and exported Yaupon tea leaves to the motherland under the name Cassina. Asian tea was too expensive and heavily taxed. Yaupon is the only plant containing caffeine in North America.

Popular landscape cultivars include the female Weeping Yaupon tree and its companion male shrub, ‘Schellings’ Holly. Leaves of Yaupon Holly have about 6 to 10 mg of caffeine per gram, similar to Camellia tea, while Arabica coffee has about 10 mg per gram. A cup of Yaupon tea has about 60 mg of cafefine, according to Bryan White, co-owner of Yaupon-Asi Tea Company in Edgewater, near New Smyrna Beach.

“Asi” means purifier in the native Florida Timucua language. There are no emetic properties in Yaupon tea. The unfortunate latinized misnomer vomitoria probably came about because Seminoles mixed in snakeroot plants, which do have purgative effects.

The White family sustainably harvests wild Yaupon leaves, washes them three times, then dehydrates them naturally for about a week. Their website claims Yaupon tea contains antioxidants and flavonoids, and has antimicrobial, analgesic and anti-inflammatory properties. White claims the caffeine in Yaupon tea is smooth and jitter-free, because Yaupon naturally contains theobromine, a cortical stimulant, kaempherol and glycosides with medicinal uses, aromic acids and chlorogenic acids similar to those in sunflower seeds, blueberries, echinacea, strawberries, pineapple and coffee.

Hand-harvested Yaupon-Asi tea is certified USDA Organic and is a Quality Certification Services (QCS) product. Yaupon teabags are sold online or at Florida Citrus Center No. 30 on State Road 484 near I-75. Considered a gourmet tea, White told me it is less expensive online.

Dunnellon Public Library has two Weeping Yaupons flanking the front doors. Volunteer Friends recently planted four ‘Schellings’ Hollies in the entry beds in hopes of increasing pollination in May which should result in more berries for birds and wildlife food in winter.

Three years ago, I planted two Weeping Yaupon Hollies and two ‘Schellings’ on my then-naked sandhill lot east of Dunnellon. These plants now provide enough tiny leaves to dehydrate for home use.

I arrived in Florida by boat and became a naturalized citizen of the United States of America in 2004. English is a constantly changing, living language. I now drink tea steeped, hot, iced, fermented, black, green, herbal, fruit-infused and Yaupon.

Jane Weber is a professional gardener and consultant. Semi-retired, she grows thousands of native plants. Visitors are welcome to her Dunnellon, Marion County, garden. For an appointment, call 352-249-6899 or contact JWeber12385@gmail.com.