Stubborn Gets a Second Chance

By Nicole Lessin
Photography by Jo Ann Santangelo

CORRECTION: We regret that we made a mistake in our printed issue and identified the wrong plant as Yaupon. Please see corrected image below. If you're ever interested in foraging for wild edibles, please use these tips. 

To many, yaupon holly is considered an ornery weed. Cut it down and it’ll grow right back; try to dig it out and you’ll probably unearth a root as thick as your forearm, and its Latin name, Ilex vomitoria, is hardly inviting. “Cows don’t eat it and even deer don’t really eat it,” says Andrea DeLong-Amaya, the director of horticulture at Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center. “They are just really vigorous growers.”

Yet Abianne Miller and her sister JennaDee Detro suspected that this small, multi-trunked evergreen tree—which grows in dense thickets across 100 acres of their parents’ land in Cat Spring, Texas—might have a redeeming quality. “We were looking for something positive, and a use for it in the same way like there has to be something good about fire ants,” Miller says with a laugh. “This is such a tenacious plant that [my sister] was thinking maybe the wood properties would be good for furniture or something like that—but definitely not for consumption.”

After some online digging, however, Detro soon learned a startling truth: Despite yaupon’s somewhat toxic berries, the small oval leaves of the plant had been used for centuries by Native Americans to brew a delicious, antioxidant-rich tea that contains some caffeine and generous amounts of theobromine, a non-jittery type of stimulant also found in chocolate. In fact, the leaves of this cousin to the South American mate plant were used throughout the southern United States to prepare a “poor man’s tea” up until the early 20th century. Not only had the pair come across a viable alternative to imported coffees and teas as a caffeine source, they were also sitting on a major crop of it and it only needed rainwater and sunshine to thrive. “We kind of were like What? This stuff?” says Miller. “This is something that people had been literally cutting down and burning.”

yaupon-correctionImage courtesy of Cat Spring Yaupon Tea

Enter Cat Spring Yaupon Tea, the sisters’ joint venture, which features their sustainably grown and harvested native Texas yaupon leaves roasted as a black tea and unroasted as a green tea—both versions comparable in flavor to those made with the leaves of Camellia sinensis (the plant family that the majority of teas are made from) but with an earthier and more nuanced flavor. “It’s lovely,” says Detro. “It’s not unfamiliar because of the Asian tea and yerba mate that we drink, but it has a little bit more complexity. The taste profile is hard to explain without tasting it.”

And then there’s the pick-me-up factor. “I think there is just a need for local caffeine,” says Miller, who has substituted the teas for coffee, even during the height of a raging caffeine addiction she experienced while in business school. “It’s kind of funny to think about. The Boston Tea Party was because of our dependence on tea and yet it hasn’t changed. We still import everything.”

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Another distinguishing feature of Cat Spring Yaupon Tea is the business’s focus on second-chance employment for harvesting and processing, which means the sisters are working with different agencies and organizations that help vulnerable groups of people dealing with homelessness, previous incarceration, addictions and other obstacles. Keith Turman, who helps coordinate workdays and other employment opportunities for fellow residents at an independent sober-living facility in Houston, says processing the yaupon leaves has been a big boost for the men. “One of them said to me the other day, I haven’t had a real job in two years, and since I’ve been doing this, I feel like I have wind in my sails again,” Turman says. “It has given them a sense of purpose.”

The sisters also have plans to launch a Kickstarter campaign for a food warehouse on the East side, and to test the energy and antioxidant properties of their yaupon tea. But for now, they say they’re simply honored and inspired to play a role in bringing attention to an oft-overlooked-and-maligned native plant. 

For more information, visit catspringyaupontea.com