Yaupon, the only plant native to North America that contains caffeine

5 Aug


On a small family ranch in Cat Spring, Texas, one resilient plant survived the dry and hostile summer of 2011, emerging just as energized as your morning cup of joe—fitting, because this was yaupon, the only plant native to North American that contains caffeine.

The ranch, cared for by Texas native JennaDee Detro, has begun harvesting and processing the plant’s leaves for tea. The little-known species contains levels of caffeine similar to those of green and black tea, and it was once dried, brewed, and traded by Native Americans, according to NPR. The plant grows wild from East Texas to coastal North Carolina—yaupon could put a dent in the import-based hegemony of coffee and tea in these 50 caffeine-addicted states.

By the numbers, America runs on coffee: More than half of all Americans drink coffee every day, according to a study by the National Coffee Association. Researchers also found that about 40 percent of that coffee is now gourmet—that is, brewed from premium whole bean or ground varieties—and 86 percent of consumers didn’t change their coffee drinking habits in tougher economic climates, making caffeine largely immune to the ups and downs of the economy.

Yaupon also grows best in harsh climates, making it drought-proof—and with the West Coast parched from a four-year dry spell and nearly a third of the country suffering from some level of drought, we could use a water-saving power crop now more than ever.


The U.S. Government Is Spending Millions to Protect Coffee From Climate Change

“The best we can tell is that they enjoy suffering,” Detro told NPR about the resilience of her yaupon crops.

Detro’s company, Cat Spring Yaupon Tea, has a popular staple at a few farm-to-table restaurants in Austin, such as the Odd Duck, where patrons drink up to five gallons of the tea a day. The restaurant’s manager, Jason James, likens the yaupon’s flavor to that of black tea. The farm has sold enough yaupon in 36 states to brew more than 100,000 cups of tea.

A domestic source of caffeine could help the industry move away from its import-heavy foreign production and tendency to exploitative farming. Some of the world’s leading tea production countries are Argentina, China, Indonesia, Kenya, and Sri Lanka, and the U.S. imports massive amounts of tea—it’s second only to Russia, according to the Tea Association of the USA.

However, tea growers receive only up to 3 percent of the retail price; transnational corporations that control trade, processing, and packaging receive up to 80 percent of what you pay, according to a Fairtrade Foundation report. Coffee growers receive slightly more—7 to 10 percent of the retail price of coffee—whereas the American retailer receives about 33 percent.

Foundations like Fairtrade work to empower small coffee and tea growers, along with sugar and cotton farmers, by supporting small farms, cutting out exploitative middlemen, and issuing certifications. Fairtrade only certifies growers that meet its standards. Included among those expectations are fair labor treatment and hiring practices and certain methods of crop sustainability. Large retailers like Starbucks make fair-trade coffee widely available, but growing native yaupon could help to localize the corporation-friendly global supply chain.

Detro’s farm has proved that it can be a model for yaupon production nationwide, and new companies in Florida and Georgia have already jumped on board with efforts to grow the crop. The success of this energizing alternative shows that something really is brewing in the behemoth American coffee industry


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