Friday, January 7, 2011
Ilex vomitoria: what a name! One would think that eating this plant would make people vomit, but no. That is not the case. The story is a bit more involved.
The tree is native to the southwest US and into Mexico. The Cherokee Indians (among others) lived within this range and used the leaves to make "black drink," a ceremonial caffeinated beverage. Village officials harvested leaves and twigs before the ceremony. They lightly roasted them (just like coffee) to make the caffeine water soluble (just like coffee). Then, they boiled the plant parts until the water became brown or black, giving the infusion its name. The drink was consumed by the tribal council using a large communal cup. At the end of the ceremony, they purged, giving the plant its name. The drinking and purging was supposed to purify councilmembers and remove any anger or sin.
Women and children were not allowed to be involved in the preparation or consumption of black drink.
American colonists also drank a tea made from Yaupon to take advantage of the caffeine content, but they called it "cassine" or "cassina."
Several specimens of this species grow at the UC Botanical Garden, but I was unable to find one in berry or bloom. I'll have to revisit this tree.