Ask Rufus: Not your typical morning joe

October 28, 2012 12:38:31 AM

Rufus Ward - [email protected]


There is an ornamental shrub often used in our region for landscaping that is much more than just another ornamental. Its name is Ilex vomitoria, but it is better known as Yaupon Holly. While most people are familiar with Yaupon, they don't realize that since prehistoric times it has provided an important beverage -- the "Black Drink" -- for Native American ceremonies. Yaupon is one of the few plants native to our area that contains a significant amount of caffeine. 


Dr. Harry Sherman, of Mississippi University for Women's Plymouth Bluff Center, describes Yaupon as a native shrub or small tree which mostly grows in the southeastern coastal plain from Virginia to Mississippi.  


Its small evergreen leaves and translucent red berries make it a popular ornamental plant, Sherman says.The standard small tree form grows naturally in the woods surrounding the Plymouth Bluff Center. 


The Indians of the southeast were very concerned with the state of their bodies, both physically and mentally, before and during important ceremonies.  


The Black Drink was a concentrated caffeine beverage which had the effects of a stimulant, diuretic and emetic. Those effects, ranging from a caffeine high to the purging of the stomach's contents, were considered purifying for the body and spirit.  


The drink was considered a ritual beverage to be consumed both before and during councils. Its consumption was restricted to only mature men.  


The Black Drink was made principally from the leaves of the Yaupon Holly. The leaves were dried, then parched over a fire until they turned dark brown. They were then boiled in water to produce a concentrated tea that was black and full of caffeine. 


Southeastern Indians often sat in council for many hours drinking the Black Drink, made only of Yaupon, without throwing up. So to produce the true emetic effects, it is believed that other substances were added. Even so, the drink -- and Yaupon -- acquired a reputation as an emetic, as shown by the Yaupon's scientific name, Ilex vomitoria. 


An excellent, detailed account of the Black Drink can be found in Charles Hudson's classic book, "The Southeastern Indians." Hudson, by the way, spent some time in Columbus and Starkville around the late 1980s while investigating the 1540-1541 route of the de Soto Expedition.  


Although Yaupon is most-noted in the historical record as "the Black Drink of the Southeastern Indians," it reappeared during the 1860s as "Confederate Tea." Newspapers from Texas to North Carolina sang its praises as a substitute for tea, especially black tea. It was usually suggested that it be improved by adding milk and that it be sweetened with molasses rather than sugar.  


In promoting Yaupon as a healthy tea substitute, the Raleigh Register of North Carolina even quoted an elderly lady saying, "Bless the Lord, Yaupon has kept me out of Heaven these 20 years."  


Obviously, Confederate Tea was akin to present-day tea beverages and not a black, concentrated caffeine beverage. 


For anyone interested in seeing the native Yaupon Holly, an evergreen growing in the wild, or the other native holly, the Possumhaw, which is deciduous, I suggest an enjoyable walk along the nature trails at MUW's Plymouth Bluff Center.

Rufus Ward is a Columbus native a local historian. E-mail your questions about local history to Rufus at [email protected]