Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Let's Rename Yaupon (Ilex vomitoria) For Accuracy And Marketing Potential

In January, Marlena of Tea For Today wrote a post Yaup, That's Tea about Yaupon, a species of holly native to North America that is, to my knowledge, the only caffeine-containing plant native to North America.

The following photo shows the Yaupon plant, with an eastern bluebird eating its berries:

Yaupon is a close relative of Yerba mate and Guayusa, all three being members of the Ilex genus, which also includes popular landscape plants such as the American holly.

Yaupon's business-killing scientific name: it's all about vomiting.

There is an aspect of Yaupon that makes it highly unlikely that it will ever become popular as a drink: its scientific name, Ilex vomitoria. Does this plant actually cause vomiting, or have something to do with vomiting? Or is it safe to make a beverage out of it?

According to the Peterson Field Guide to Edible Wild Plants, Yaupon is safe to use to make a (caffeinated) herbal tea, so long as the leaves are fully dried, although the plant is mildly poisonous if the leaves are consumed fresh. This is no different from the other hollies: Yerba Mate and Guayusa both must be fully dried before consumption, and are poisonous when raw.

The scientific name for Yaupon, it turns out, has nothing to do with the properties of the plant itself, but rather, with a ritual involving an herbal brew called the black drink, practiced by Native Americans in southeastern North America. This ritual is depicted here on a 16th-century engraving by Jacques le Moyne de Morgues, who produced multiple engravings depicting the ritual and drink:

It is not known exactly what the black drink contained, but it was known to contain Yaupon, possibly as the sole ingredient, or possibly mixed with other ingredients. People would consume large quantities of the drink. In some cases, people would then induce vomiting. However, not all accounts of the black drink or drinks made from Yaupon reference vomiting. It seems reasonable to conclude that the vomiting was induced independently of any chemical constituents to Yaupon, and was associated with the ritual, rather than the plant or the drink produced by it. However, because of its association with these rituals, the name vomitoria was given as the species name for Yaupon.

My proposal:

I would like to propose that the scientific name of this plant be changed. This may seem like a large undertaking, but it is not unprecedented: species names are changed continuously, due primarily to taxonomic reclassification. Tanya Dewey, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Michigan, in the Zoology department, explains this in her essay What is in a Scientific Name?, when she writes:

When our scientific understanding of animal species and their relationships changes, it may mean that scientific names change as well.

Dewey was writing about zoology but the issues in plant taxonomy are similar. Our understanding of Yaupon has changed. We now know that it does not cause vomiting, nor is its traditional consumption always associated with vomiting. We also know that the name vomitoria is unappealing and effectively kills or at least greatly hinders any potential to develop a market for Yaupon as a commercial product.

What do you think?

Do you think it would be a good idea to change Yaupon's scientific name, Ilex vomitoria, and change it to something more neutral which would both be scientifically accurate and more marketable? What steps do you think would need to be taken in order to achieve this sort of reclassification or renaming? Do you think there could ever be a commercial market for this plant? Have you ever tried it, or known anyone who has tried it?


  1. I would be all for changing the name. Tea underwent a name change when more became known about it, as I am sure many other flora and fauna did as well. How about Ilex tisaneansis?

    There are many plants which need to be treated in some way to be edible or drinkable. The one I can think of is elderberries, which need to be cooked, nettles need to be boiled to be edible and I know there are others

  2. depends how good it tastes -- i.e. the cost/benefit ratio of the effort

  3. Has anyone pursued this idea any further? If so, I would love to know where it stands or what you found out.

    1. No, I have not yet pursued this idea, and don't know of anyone doing so, but I recently learned about three domestic producers and sellers of Yaupon herbal tea, which you can find on RateTea's page on Yaupon, and I'd imagine they'd be interested in this issue as well, as they all would have a potential financial interest in it.