Here's The Buzz On Yaupon, America's Forgotten Native 'Tea' Plant : The Salt It's called yaupon. Native Americans once made a brew from its caffeinated leaves and traded them widely. With several companies now selling yaupon, it may be poised for a comeback.

Here's The Buzz On America's Forgotten Native 'Tea' Plant

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

For many months every Tuesday, NPR's food blog, The Salt, has been bringing you a story from the world of tea. Today we're going to join their tea party with this installment. Some Americans go to great lengths to find fairly traded coffee and organically grown tea. But those products must be imported, until now.

Two sisters in Texas are hoping to revive interest in a caffeinated plant that's native to the U.S. Once valued by Native Americans, Murray Carpenter reports this plant has been nearly forgotten.

MURRAY CARPENTER, BYLINE: On a steamy day in East Texas, JennaDee Detro is standing in the shade of an oak, clipping branches from a 10-foot tall evergreen holly. Detro is harvesting leaves from a thicket of yaupon. She became intrigued by yaupon trees when they were the only plants on the family cattle ranch that seemed vigorous during a severe drought in 2011.

JENNADEE DETRO: The best we can tell is that they enjoy suffering (laughter), so this kind of extreme weather in Texas and the extreme soil conditions are perfect for the yaupon.

CARPENTER: Detro began researching yaupon and was surprised at every turn. She learned that it was once a valuable plant to the Cherokee, Creek, Seminole and other southeastern tribes that made a brew from the leaves and traded them widely. Early settlers even exported yaupon to Europe. But yaupon was elbowed aside by what purists call true tea, Camellia sinensis, from Asia. When Detro learned how to process the leaves, she told her sister, Abianne Falla, about her plans to sell the product at a farmers market or two.

ABIANNE FALLA: At first when she was telling me about it, I kind of had the same mentality of everyone around here, you know - well, let me taste it first.

CARPENTER: She liked what she tasted, and so did Jason James.

JASON JAMES: The flavor profile of it, I don't feel like it's too far off from a black tea. The tannin structures are a little bit different.

CARPENTER: James is sitting on a deck outside Odd Duck, the farm-to-table restaurant he manages in Austin. He's sipping a glass of iced yaupon, which he recently started serving in lieu of black tea. Now the lunch crowd drinks four or five gallons daily.

JAMES: Being that we have that ethic of, you know, sourcing local and being sustainable and - this just fit the bill.

CARPENTER: Detro and Falla named their product Cat Spring Yaupon Tea after the small town where the family ranch is located. They've had some guidance along the way from Steve Talcott, a professor of food chemistry at Texas A&M. Talcott says yaupon is the only native North American plant he knows of that contains caffeine. He says the caffeine levels vary, but are roughly comparable to green or black tea.

STEVE TALCOTT: I love doing this. I walk out and pick some leaves off the plant and go, you know, this is the only, you know, plant we know in North America that contains caffeine. I can make a wonderful tea out of this. And they're like, no, no way. And it's just amazing. Until they actually try the tea, until you try it for the first time, you would just be, you know, blown away that this was an edible food.

CARPENTER: Count David Avery among the incredulous. Drinking iced tea at the corner store in Cat Spring, he says he spent many hours on a bulldozer tearing up yaupon, which encroaches on hay fields and pastures.

DAVID AVERY: Oh, yaupon. Shoot, if you're from around here, you just want to get rid of it. Most of the people, we don't do anything with it. First that I've heard that they're making tea.

CARPENTER: But Avery says he'd like to try it, and he's not alone. Detro and Falla have sold enough yaupon to brew more than 100,000 cups of tea to customers in 36 states. With other companies in Georgia and Florida now selling yaupon, it just may be poised for a comeback that's long overdue. For NPR News, I'm Murray Carpenter.

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