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Psychoactive plants Project Psychoactive Plants

The Black Drink: Ilex vomitoria

Plant Biology

Yaupon or Ilex vomitoria is a shrub or small tree that forms part of the holly family (Aquifoliaceae). The species is native to the coastal plain of the southeastern United States, both on the Atlantic and Gulf shores. Ilex vomitoria can be found as part of coastal shrub, pineland, and hardwood ecosystems. With the exception of the closely related plant, I. cassine, yaupon is the only known North American plant that produces significant quantities of caffeine and is therefore considered a psychostimulant. Concentrations are similar to yerba maté (I. paraguariensis), ranging from 0 to 1.9% of the dry weight of the leaves of the plant (Edwards and Bennett 2005; Palumbo et al. 2007, Palumbo et al. 2009).

Historic Accounts

Early historic accounts from the Southeastern United States document widespread use of a purgative known as the black drink, a caffeinated ceremonial tea famous for its use in purification rituals by elite males. As the beverage was consumed in special marine shell cups, it is thought that similar prehistoric artifacts found in high status burials, particularly those with so-called Southeastern Ceremonial Complex iconographic symbols, may have served a similar function.

Ceremonial Use

The Black Drink was connected to purity, which found its most dramatic expression in those contexts were it was regurgitated. However, the tea was also served without the intention to produce vomiting, during rituals such as ballgames, feasting, council meetings, or burial ceremonies. It even seems that its consumption extended towards an everyday social beverage.


Image of Ilex vomitoria with berries and foliage.
A mature Ilex vomitoria plant in Pensacola, Florida. Image credit: Wikimedia user Luteus [CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

de Bry engraving
This 1591 engraving by Theodor de Bry shows an assembly of Native Floridians with a representation of the preparation of black drink for the occasion. Courtesy of State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory.


Edwards, Adam L., and Bradley C. Bennett
2005Diversity of Methylxanthine Content in Ilex cassine L. and Ilex vomitoria Ait.: Assessing Sources of the North American Stimulant Cassina. Economic Botany 59:275–285. DOI: 10.1663/0013-0001(2005)059[0275:DOMCII]2.0.CO;2
Palumbo, Matthew J., Francis E. Putz, and Stephen T. Talcott
2007Nitrogen Fertilizer and Gender Effects on the Secondary Metabolism of Yaupon, a Caffeine-Containing North American Holly. Oecologia 151(1):1–9. DOI: 10.1007/s00442-006-0574-1
Palumbo, Matthew J., Stephen T. Talcott, and Francis E. Putz
2009Ilex vomitoria Ait. (Yaupon): A Native North American Source of a Caffeinated and Antioxidant-Rich Tea. Economic Botany 63(2):130–137. DOI: 10.1007/s12231-009-9078-3