ORLANDO, Fla., Feb. 25 (UPI) -- Yaupon, a native American holly shrub, is gaining new attention in research and agriculture as a locally sourced, drought-resistant crop that can make a tea rich in caffeine and antioxidants.
In Texas and Florida, where yaupon thrives as a common wild plant, tea sellers are springing up to process and sell yaupon green tea. They've formed a new national trade group, the American Yaupon Association, to promote the plant and improve supply from farmers.
One of the earliest entrants into the new market is Yaupon Brothers in northeast Florida. Recently, the company began to receive calls daily from farmers and landowners -- especially citrus growers whose groves have been wiped out by disease.
These growers wondered if yaupon would make a good replacement crop, said Bryon White, the company's co-founder and chief executive officer.
Yaupon Brothers owns 13 acres on which the company grows the shrub, and it has lease agreements for additional acres. Most of the leaves still come from wild plants, not new plantings, but that is about to change, White said.
"People want to know where their food comes from," White said. "There's a transparency that comes from buying local. It's probably impossible to know where most traditional tea at the grocery store comes from."
Researchers at the University of Florida and Texas A&M University have documented the history of yaupon. It once was used in large quantities by Native American tribes on a regular basis and in special warrior ceremonies.
Jack Putz, a biologist at the University of Florida who has published research about yaupon, said the plant is finally making a comeback after hundreds of years in obscurity. The current revival of the native plant has been long in the making.
Part of the new interest in yaupon can be traced to a paper published in the journal Economic Botany in 2009, with a partial title of "A Native North American Source of a Caffeinated and Antioxidant-Rich Tea."
"While no longer widely used to brew tea, yaupon is widely cultivated in the southeastern United States as an ornamental hedge in urban and suburban landscapes. ... In contrast, early endorsements of yaupon cultivation for commercial exploitation of its chemical properties (in 1891 and 1919) were mostly ignored," the paper said.
Putz was an author of the 2009 paper. He said he began after publication to get more inquiries about how to grow yaupon and make tea with it.
"It's all around my house. It's a common native species. I just go out and strip some branches and dry it and cut it up," Putz said. He then steeps the chopped leaves in hot water to make a cup of tea.
Florida farmer David Chiappini is growing strains of yaupon that will yield larger leaves for tea companies, he said. His nursery west of Gainesville offers a variety of native plants.
"We have several hundred yaupon plants here. People like the berries, and it's often planted to redo natural landscaping after developers strip it bare," Chiappini said. "We've had a few customers who are interested in growing it for tea, but many people have more questions about it than answers."
Leaf harvesters don't want the showy, orange-red berries that many find attractive, he said, and they have to be separated out. Tea companies favor male plants that don't produce berries.
There has been no need to plant extra yaupon in rural East Texas, where two sisters started the CatSpring Yaupon tea company in 2013. They've now hired 10 employees to handle the business they've generated.
"It grows so dense here, we don't need to cultivate it," said Abianne Miller Falla, a co-owner with her sister, JennaDee Miller Detro. Instead, they simply sign agreements with landowners to harvest leaves.
The sisters got their start when they noticed that the plant remained green during a severe drought in 2011. They started to research uses for it.
"We were losing 100-year-old oak trees. People were selling all their livestock off," Miller Falla said. "We just noticed that yaupon was still alive."
The scientific name for yaupon, ilex vomitoria, is one reason the plant hasn't been embraced widely, the University of Florida's Putz said. The name comes from early European settlers who saw Native American warriors drink large quantities of yaupon tea during purification ceremonies that sometimes included fasting and resulted in vomiting.
Another problem for yaupon is that it sometimes resembles a young Brazilian pepper tree, an invasive plant that is not edible. Putz's research showed yaupon's vitamins and other beneficial compounds don't require nitrogen fertilization, although fertilizer can be used to maximize leaf growth.
Industry research is now focused on which strains of the plant grow well and produce the most caffeine. Research has shown that yaupon has about the same amount of caffeine as traditional green tea.
Yaupon Brothers is working with a nursery, Agri-Starts in Apopka, Fla., northwest of Orlando, to propagate young yaupon plants. The University of Florida has also started to raise and provide yaupon plants, some of which are provided by Yaupon Brothers.
White said the plant propagates easily from cuttings, but it takes four months or so to be transplantable. Once a new plant reaches maturity, yaupon leaves can be culled sustainably twice a year, and a single plant can live for 100 years.
White, 33, was a sworn officer supervising beach patrols in Volusia County's Public Protection Department when he became interested in yaupon. Tired of his job, he started to look into yaupon. He said it made no sense to him that Americans didn't utilize such an abundant local caffeine source.
Yaupon Brothers is on track to do $250,000 in sales this year, according to White. The startup company is building a factory, headquarters and store in Edgewater, Fla., 20 miles south of Daytona Beach.
White said he recently signed a new deal with a national retail chain. Growing the industry requires growing an entire supply chain, White said.
"There was never a commercial supply of it. We have to build all that from the ground up. It takes generally 100 years to make a new crop a commodity, so we're looking at a long-term commitment," he said.