Friday, August 26, 2016


I must have drunk thousands of cups of tea in my life so it was no surprise that on Monday, when a group of volunteers met in the volunteer room at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, to experiment with native plants used for tea, I was the designated tea-making lady. With some rather primitive tea making equipment I began brewing teas.

It is all part of The Wildflower Center's Taste of Place Project which focuses on the harvesting and preparation of edible native plants. Under the watchful eye of Intern Rosalie Kelley, volunteers are seen here sorting the leaves of yaupon holly, Ilex vomitoria, prairie tea, Croton monanthogynus, and the flowers of horsemint, Monardo citriodora.

Sorting and cleaning leaves for tea making.
I began with yaupon tea. Surely with a Latin name Ilex vomitoria, this tea would have a rather disturbing effect on the digestive system. But it is really a misnomer. It seems that the story of this plant having purgative effects stems from its use by native Americans who drank gallons of the brew after fasting for several days. No wonder they gave our native holly such a bad name.

Dried and lightly roasted yaupon leaves
The interesting thing is that yaupon leaves are the only native plant that contains caffeine. So this is essentially a tea that will give you that early morning or late afternoon boost. There are several ways to prepare the leaves; they can be air dried, dried in the oven at 200º or quick roasted making sure they don't brown. Heat tends to open the pores so that the caffeine is released.
Yaupon trees are either male or female. It is a little easier to cut a branch and allow it to dry before removing the leaves. One thing is for sure, you won't have to go far to find a plentiful supply of leaves. The birds are very good at planting a yaupon or two in your garden.
In order to brew the tea I decommissioned a fabric tea bag, adding one tablespoon of the dried leaves and steeping in freshly boiling water for 3 minutes. Then each volunteer had the chance to taste the tea.

Tea tasting at the Wildflower Center
Everyone liked the tea and of the three teas we brewed this was the favorite. There were differing opinions on the other teas!
We then headed out onto the trails to do a little foraging.

We were looking for our native persimmons, Diospyros texana, which ripen in August. There was plenty of evidence that raccoons and foxes had been out foraging. The fruits appear on the female trees and are ripe when back, both resembling and tasting like prunes. They can be eaten straight from the tree by squeezing out the pulp and removing the seeds or used to make jams and jellies.

Ripe persimmons

Walking the trails with Andrea De Long-Amaya, our Director of Horticulture you are sure to learn something new. On this particular occasion I learnt about the toothache tree, Zanthoxylum hirsute. Easy to identify, with its glossy prickly-looking leaves, this bush or small tree has an odor of citrus when the leaves are crushed. The thorns or leaves produce a fairly strong anesthetic which was used to numb the gum before tooth extraction. The Native Americans would stick the thorn into the gum until the area was anesthetized. Chewing the leaf will have a similar effect on the tongue or can be pressed onto the gum.

Toothache tree

Do you have greenbriar, Smilax sp. in your garden? Yes, that annoying prickly briar that you can never get rid of. You may think of it more kindly when you learn the tender leaves and shoots are edible, as well as the tuberous root. As are the fleshy underground storage root of the Texas wine cup, Callirhoe involucrata. Then the native mustang grape, Vitis mustangenis, along with prickly pear fruits and the agarita berry make wonderful jellies.

This is just a sample of the many native plants that can be foraged for use in the kitchen and the Taste of Place initiative aims to introduce the public to the uses for these plants by creating a 3000 square foot demonstration kitchen garden at the Wildflower center. You may even find some of this produce being used in the cafe.

If you like to experiment, try the yaupon tea. If you are a green tea drinker or even take your tea black the taste of this tea is very much like that of the Camelia sinensis. And there is a plentiful supply out there just waiting to be picked.


  1. Your wildflower center is much more instructive than my local botanic garden! I'm glad no one was harmed by the tea experiment - you had me concerned at first when you mentioned Ilex vomitoria.

  2. Fascinating post!

    I planted a yaupon holly this past spring. It's still a tiny plant - much too small to harvest for tea - but someday... :)

  3. We've already introduced the toddler to Persimmons and he loves them!...Now to make sure he doesn't eat the green ones...

  4. Interesting about the yaupon tea, I'll have to try it for one of my daily caffeine boosts. I had heard the TX persimmons were poisonous to humans; I'm happy to hear that's incorrect!


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