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Yaupon Tea

How to harvest and process tea leaves from Ilex vomitoria

Let’s talk about tea!

Here is my favorite way of preparing Yaupon holly tea ~ green tea style.

Yaupon holly (Ilex vomitoria) in flower
Yaupon holly (Ilex vomitoria) flowers (March 10, Crescent Beach, FL)

Yaupon holly (Ilex vomitoria) is the tea plant of the Southeastern-most edge of this continent. You will find its beloved face throughout most parts of Northern and Central Florida, but less so as you near the South Florida tropics. I have seen Yaupon growing abundantly as far North as coastal Virginia (on the Chesapeake Bay).

In low growing coastal hammocks, just barely inland from the dunes, I have seen Yaupon growing in the most abundant and dense thickets, amid saw palmetto (Serenoa repens), wax myrtle (Myrica cerifera), rose pepper (Schinus terebinthifolius), winged sumac (Rhus copallinum), groundsel tree (Baccharis halimifolia), diminutive sand live oaks (Quercus geminata), and cabbage palm (Sabal palmetto). This is where I mainly harvest Yaupon tea (in Crescent Beach, Florida to be specific), but you should have no trouble finding Yaupon in many other a scrubby habitat of the Southeast coasts.

yaupon holly (Ilex vomitoria) leaves ready to harvest for tea making
Young (meristematic) yaupon holly leaves at a perfect time for harvesting. Note their light green color in comparison to the dark green color of the mature leaves in the background.

I harvest Yaupon in the Spring and Summer, when these shrubs are putting off actively growing, bright green growth tips. These tender, meristematic (meaning new growth) twigs and leaves may be altogether a couple inches long or upwards to eight inches long or more, especially along a sunny edge or if these shrubs have recently been cut low. These growth tips can be lime green, a burgundy red-orange, or somewhere in the middle. They should look waxy and shiny in texture, and snap off from the bush easily with a pinch between two fingers.

Yaupon holly (Ilex vomitoria) young meristematic leaves for tea harvesting
Two typical looks of yaupon meristem. Both are great for tea.

This is what makes this tea green tea style. We are harvesting the young leaves (and twigs) only, as is typically the case when harvesting leaves of the tea plant Camellia sinensis, from which comes green, black, and oolong teas. Others may choose to harvest the dark green, mature leaves of Yaupon holly for tea.

harvesting Yaupon holly (Ilex vomitoria) leaves for tea
it's always good to be mindful of rattlesnakes in these thick saw palmetto areas

I find this plant is best harvested on a hot, clear, sunny day. Not a cloudy one. I want to be drenched in sun when harvesting Yaupon. These kinds of things are important. For tea vibes.

meristem meets meristem (bullbriar Smilax bona-nox & yaupon)

the yaupon mama

After filling a basket with Yaupon holly tips, lay them out indoors to dry. You can spread them out on a sheet, loosely layered in baskets, or on drying screens. Just keep them out of direct sun, in a place which gets some air circulation. I like to fluff these leaves once a day, to make sure that air is getting to them all easily.

freshly harvested yaupon leaves laid out on a large fabric in a back bedroom

The thing about the South is that with such frequently high humidity, it can be hard to dry herbs. This is a secret gift with Yaupon. If Yaupon leaves dry slowly (but not so slowly that they begin to mold), then they naturally turn a very dark brown. They will appear fermented. This, I have found, makes the best tea. If your leaves dry more quickly, and keep their green color, this will make a good tea too. But I encourage you to let them brown. Having a fan going in a shaded room with the windows open is a great kind of scenario.

yaupon holly (Ilex vomitoria) tea leaves drying
Yaupon leaves on day 2 of drying

Yaupon holly (Ilex vomitoria) tea leaves drying
Yaupon leaves on day 4 of drying. Notice there is a lot of browning but no mold.

yaupon holly (Ilex vomitoria) leaves drying to tea oxidizing
(Day 4 of drying)

(fully dried leaves 1 week after harvesting)

After about a week, once the leaves and stems appear mostly dried, gather a bundle and bring it to your nose. At this point, the tea should smell subtly sweet and floral. Squeeze it gently in your hands, and the leaves should crumble. The tea is ready for roasting.

Crumble the tea leaves into a shallow pan than is ungreased (so, not a cast iron ideally). Enamelware works great. It’s best to roast only a thin layer of tea leaves at a time, so that they roast evenly. This typically means roasting several batches. Over low heat, let the tea leaves heat up until they start to smell very fragrant. Stir and crumble them as they slowly roast, for about a half hour. I mostly like to stir them with my hands, so that I can feel the temperature of the leaves. Smell the tea constantly. You never want to smell burning or smoking. Just a nutty, sweet, roasted aroma. Keeping the heat on low or medium low will help ensure you don’t burn your tea leaves.

After twenty minutes or a half hour, you can taste start testing the tea to get it to your favorite level of roastedness. Sprinkle a teaspoon of tea leaves into a glass, pour over steaming water, and wait a few minutes. Less roasted tea will be more of a light greenish color. More roasted tea will be golden. After tasting, if you’d prefer the tea more roasted, then keep going.

The roasting also helps to release the rest of the moisture from the tea leaves, so store them in an airtight container soon after you finish roasting them for the longest shelf life.

I like to brew yaupon holly tea similar to green tea, meaning to steep the leaves for only a few minutes. But you may like it stronger. Just keep in mind that like Camellia sinensis, yaupon holly tea will take on some deeper flavors and tones the longer it steeps. Yaupon tea with a touch of honey is very nice.

Je prends un thé !

Some Past Ways of Processing Yaupon Leaves (which I thought made either a less tasting tea, or the same tea with much more labor):

1. steaming & blanching meristem leaves, then drying

2. steaming & blanching meristem leaves, then drying, then roasting

3. steaming & blanching meristem leaves, then rolling into balls by hand, then drying

4. step 3 plus roasting

5. rolling meristem leaves between the hands to break and bruise them, allowing to oxidize and ferment in the sun, then shade, then drying fully

6. step 5 plus roasting

7. wilting meristem leaves in the sun, then fully drying in shade

8. step 7 plus roasting

Journal Notes:

2019 Crescent Beach, FL

Mar 10- first day of yaupon tea harvesting

Mar 12- loquats are ripe!

Mar 15- pawpaws are quite leafed out and blooming, wild cherries (P. serotina) leafed out and blooming, Salvia lyrata still in full bloom (at Fort Matanzas)

Mar 17- blackberries all blooming at Moses Creek Conservation Area

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Dec 13, 2023

Thank you for this! I am a Florida gal who is an herbalist and tea enthusiast. I own a small tea business called Noisy Crane Tea, named after our beloved Sandhill Crane, in the Tampa Bay area. I work with other small tea businesses who bring in farm direct artisanal traditional asian teas. I want to incorporate some Yaupon Holly tea in my selections and was wondering the best time to harvest and you went above and beyond answering my question. I love how you incorporated traditional tea harvesting & processing methods in your technique. So cool!!

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