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Harvesting America’s Forgotten Tea To Protect Wildlife

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Many of the dense pine forests of Eastern Texas are strangled by thickets of a unique, North American shrub. The shrub threatens the growth of young trees and native grasses, and Yaupon holly limits the habitat of the endangered Houston toad. However, thanks to tea drinkers across the country, this American shrub is no longer a growing concern. Yaupon, or Ilex vomitoria, is the only caffeinated plant native to the United States, and one small tea company is reviving the choked forests of Eastern Texas while saving a critically endangered toad. By harvesting wild Yaupon sustainably, Lost Pines Yaupon Tea is doing good one mug at a time.

Steeped in History

Considered by some as the United States’ forgotten native tea, Yaupon is part of our history. It was first used by Native Americans as an ingredient in their ceremonial tea, sometimes called the Black Drink. On its own, Yaupon is a delightful brew that’s high in antioxidants, and theobromine, a chemical in dark chocolate that is known to boost your mood. Some of the first European colonizers brought Yaupon back to Europe and called it “South Sea Tea.” Yerba mate, Yaupon’s closest relative, grows in South America, and both plants have roughly the same caffeine content as green tea. Yerba mate and Yaupon also contain polyphenols, a micronutrient shown to reduce inflammation in studies. Despite all of these useful traits, most people don’t know about Yaupon holly or the danger it can pose to fragile ecosystems. 

Yaupon holly grows freely all across the southeastern United States. While many Americans have Yaupon planted in their yards without even knowing it, the shrub is a real nuisance for many farmers. It moves quickly into clearings preventing other plants from growing, and the untrimmed Yaupon thicket serves as a “ladder fuel” for forest fires, helping the flames reach high into the canopy of trees where the fire is more likely to catch. 

This combination of history, nutrition, and aiding in eliminating potential danger is what first attracted Jason Ellis and Heidi Wachter, co-founders of Lost Pines Yaupon Tea, to the plant. “I was looking through this ethnobotany book to see what the Native Americans grew out here or forage out here,” Jason told The Business Download in an interview. “I found this entry on the Yaupon holly, and it said that it was caffeinated, and I said ‘What? I’ve never heard of this before?’”

Harvesting Yaupon is hard work. Photo Courtesy of Lost Pines Yaupon.

Thirs-tea Work

Jason hiked into the backwoods of Central Texas, harvested some Yaupon, roasted it in his oven, and started sharing the tea with friends. Almost 10 years later, after a lot of conversations where he tried to get his friends and family interested in Yaupon tea, two friends said yes. Heidi and John Siebold decided to go into business with Jason. But where would they find enough Yaupon to sell? After putting an ad on Craigslist, the team at Lost Pines got in touch with several farmers who wanted help removing the Yaupon off of their property. Armed with lopping shears and thick gloves, the trio set out into the woods of Central Texas to cut wild yaupon for their neighbors. To this day, they still harvest all of the Yaupon in the same sustainable way, cutting the wild plants at the base so they can regrow, but eliminating the potential for the shrub to grow into a dense thicket.

This harvesting technique goes beyond organic, it’s wild-raised without irrigation, pesticides, or fertilizers, and harvested by hand. Not only does this provide Lost Pines with their tea, but it also benefits the farmers and the endangered Houston toad. “The government out here incentivizes property owners to restore toad habitat. So this one farmer we work with has about 70 acres of land, and we harvest on about ten acres of it. Then she actually gets a wildlife agricultural exemption, so she gets taxed like her land is being used for agriculture, which is a lot lower than regular taxes,” Jason explained. “Even though she’s not doing agriculture because removing Yaupon helps the [Houston] toad, so it’s a wildlife habitat.” By harvesting the Yaupon in this sustainable, labor-intensive way, Lost Pines Yaupon Tea provides a benefit to its neighbors while protecting the 100-mile breeding ground of the endangered Houston toad.

The Lost Pines team lopping away at Yaupon. Photo Courtesy of Lost Pines Yaupon Tea.


A Business Opportuni-Tea

Like the Yaupon they harvest, Lost Pines is entirely home-grown. The trio started their business without venture capitalist funding or private backers, and they are 100 percent invested in their own business. Since founding the company, they have grown a healthy online store and their Yaupon tea has sprouted up in retail locations like Whole Foods, The Wheatsville Food Co-op, and local restaurants. Austinites can also find them serving free samples at Mueller Farmers Market. The biggest challenge to their growth right now is educating about Yaupon and its benefits. “Overall, from the time we started until, now we’ve seen a lot of growth. The biggest challenge for us is that most people still haven’t heard of Yaupon tea.” Heidi said in an interview with The Business Download. “When we’re in grocery stores, it’s really helpful for us to be able to sample, which we can’t do right now.”

To help educate more people about Yaupon, Lost Pines is focusing more on their online marketplace, and on selling tea directly to the consumer. “We can reach so many more people that way,” Hiedi explained. “We’re in the process of redoing our website, we’re gonna be working with digital marketers to help us get the word out because it’s just so much more efficient to spread knowledge that way and we can send out orders every day.” With two roasts, dark and light, as well as ready-to-drink tea concentrates, Lost Pines Yaupon Tea is ready to deliver bold flavors and a healthy buzz straight to their customer’s door. Each bottle or bag sold, means they have to go out and harvest more Yaupon, which is good for the farmers, and even better for the Houston Toad. As the tea industry trends towards at-home-consumption, Lost Pines Yaupon Tea delivers the United States’ forgotten tea straight to your mug.


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