Holly

March 01, 2021

Last week I received word from a friend that the Holly bush that served as the focal point in the turnaround drive where I work may have died.  Following the intense cold of the last several weeks the leaves have all turned black and have begun to fall off.  The yaupon holly (Ilex vomitoria) is an evergreen shrub or small tree with green leaves and red berries that add color throughout the year.  The Yaupon is native to the southeastern US.  While it is often planted as an informal hedge shrub or privacy screen, our bush served as a colorful stand alone, accented by a low rock wall enclosure and three stone steps forming a bench where people can rest and reflect on the day.

When I looked the holly up online, I found it grows native from southern Virginia south to Florida and west to southeast Oklahoma and central Texas.  Each plant produces little greenish-white male or female flowers in the spring, though only the females will bear fruit.  The small berries are usually red but sometimes yellow.  The berries not only provide winter color but provide food for birds and other wildlife.  While our bush had been trimmed to a height of around six feet, it can grow anywhere from 12-45 ft high, but usually no higher than 25 ft.  The Yaupon Holly is common throughout its range, and if the suckers are not trimmed back, it can be trimmed into hedges.

The original popularity for the plant comes from the caffeine found in the leaves and twigs of the Yaupon Holly.  Native American Indians used the leaves to prepare a tea.  The tea was ceremonially consumed in large quantities and then vomited back up, lending the plant its species name, vomitoria.  The vomiting is not a natural result of drinking the tea but was self-induced by adding other ingredients to the concoction.  Tribes from the interior traveled to the coast in large numbers each spring to collect and drink this tonic.  The tea was also a common hospitality drink among many groups.  The Holly and the tea remained popular among southeastern Americans into the 20th century and is still occasionally consumed today.  The flavor is said to resemble another holly drink and practice, the South American Yerba maté (Ilex paraguariensis).  I liked the bush and hope it will recover.

Thoughts:  Caffeine is a naturally occurring alkaloid in some 60 plant species.  While cocoa beans, kola nuts, tea leaves, and coffee beans are the most well-known, other natural sources of caffeine include yerba maté, guarana berries, guayusa, and the yaupon holly.  The use of these plants for invigorating drinks or chewing the leaves and berries seemed to develop independently throughout the lower temperate or tropical areas where the plants thrive.  Most cultures who use the plants have associated myths describing how the plant came to be discovered and is now used.  While myths are used by all cultures to explain the “why” of otherwise unknown behaviors, they are often rooted in fact.  The difficulty is separating the facts from the hyperbole that makes the story resonate with the people.  It seems the opposite effect is driving many of the myths (falsehoods) being spread about ideologies and science today.  If the ideology or science infringes on what I want to believe, I just make up a story to provide a different narrative.  Unlike the ancient stories, these are not rooted in facts and will not last the span of time.  Follow the science.  Change is coming and it starts with you.

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