Florida’s “Black Drink”

When the Spanish encountered Native Americans in Florida in the 16th century, they found them making a “Black Drink” that was used both as a daily hot beverage  and as a ceremonial emetic for ritual religious cleansing.

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Yaupon Holly

Many folks around the world get their morning jolt of caffeine from coffee, which comes from shrubs in the Coffea genus that are native to Africa. Florida also has a native species of coffee plant, known as Psychotria nervosa, but it differs in one important aspect: it doesn’t have any caffeine. 

But Native Americans in the southeastern US did find a substitute, the only North American plant that came with a natural dose of caffeine. This was the Yaupon Holly, which can be found from Virginia down to Florida and across to Texas. With its green leaves and red berries, the plant is sometimes used today for Christmas decorations. But Natives in ancient America learned to use the plant to make a sort of tea that was rich in caffeine. (In South America, a similar drink, known as Yerba Maté, is made from another Holly plant in the same Ilex genus.)

The North American version was known as “Black Drink”. It was made by lightly roasting the leaves over a fire (as with all hollies, the berries contain the toxic chemical ilicin, and were discarded) to make the caffeine more soluble, then soaking them in hot water to make a rich dark brew, much like tea. The caffeine content is about the same as in Chinese green tea.

For the most part, the Natives used their Yaupon tea as a daily beverage. But the Black Drink was also important for ceremonial purposes, where it was used to induce vomiting that served for ritual cleansing and purification. When the Europeans reached Florida they found the Timucua and Cayusa Natives using Black Drink in their ceremonies. The drink was a valuable and prized trade commodity as well, used both for religious and secular purposes. Archaeological studies would find caffeinated traces of Black Drink in decorated pots and clay bottles across the Eastern US as far away as the Great Lakes, where Yaupon leaves from the Southeast were traded for scarce copper tools and ornaments. (A few of these vessels also contained traces of cacao, which had been traded from Central America.) Shell cups used for ritual consumption of Black Drink were often found in burials.

In 1789, samples of Yaupon leaves and berries reached William Aiton, the royal botanist who was in charge of the Kew Gardens in London. Based on the stories that he heard of the ritualistic use in North America, Aiton dubbed the plant Ilex vomitoria, meaning “holly that makes you throw up”. 

But he was mistaken: there are no chemicals in the plant that cause vomiting. The Europeans in America already knew this: they had adopted the Black Drink for themselves, calling it “Cassina”. By the first decades of the 19th century Cassina was being produced and consumed on virtually every Southern plantation, by both master and slaves alike, and rivalled English tea as the most popular drink. There were even efforts to commercially export Cassina to London and Paris, under the name “Carolina Tea”. (This caused fear among the British East India Company that it might interfere with their China and India tea monopoly, and there were some efforts to limit the availability of the drink in England.)

But over time Cassina fell out of favor, and as Southern gentlemen became wealthier and more genteel they viewed the local brew as something reserved for the lower classes and slaves, and demonstrated their opulence and culture by drinking expensive imported British tea instead. During the Civil War, when tea imports to the Confederacy were cut off by the Federal naval blockade, people were forced to once again use Cassina instead, and this led to the drink being negatively associated with hardship and deprivation. By 1900 Cassina had virtually disappeared in the US, mostly replaced by coffee.

But since then, anthropologists and archaeologists have faced a mystery: if there are no chemicals in Yaupon that produce vomiting, how was the Black Drink used as a ritual emetic? Most investigators have concluded that the ceremonial version of Cassina contained an extra ingredient that was added specifically to induce vomiting, but nobody is sure what that was—and those Native American shamans who have had the recipes passed down to them over the generations have kept it as a closely-guarded secret. Speculation, though, has run the gamut from certain varieties of mushroom to native toxic plants like snakeroot.

Today, Cassina tea made from Yaupon has made something of a comeback, and can now be found in some areas of the South and on the Internet as a specialty gourmet craft drink.

One thought on “Florida’s “Black Drink””

  1. Around here all manner of plants have been used as tea and coffee substitutes, and I see there is actually a whole Wikipedia article about such substitutes:

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coffee_substitute

    The article also mentions cassina. And then, of course, we have the famous rooibos tea.

    As an aside: it has become popular worldwide to protect local brands via legislation, e.g. it is now illegal all over the western world to call sparkling wine champagne, unless it is actually from the Champagne region in France. A noteworthy exception is coffee, probably simply because Ethiopia simply does not have the international clout to enforce such a thing.

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