Scientific name: Ilex vomitoria
What: tea from leaves
How: Dry leaves, add boiling water
When: all year
Nutritional Value: caffeine and antioxidants
Dangers: Avoid the berries as they will make you vomit. Do not mistake yaupon holly for the toxic Chinese privet (Ligustrum sinense).
Left: yaupon holly (SAFE)
Right: Chinese privet (TOXIC)
The leaves of yaupon holly and Chinese privet are very similar in shape and size. An easy way to tell them apart is the leaves of the Chinese privet grow in a uniform pinnate manner. The leaves of yaupon holly have a random, chaotic growth pattern. Just remember "chaos = caffeine"!
Yaupon holly leaves are an excellent source of caffeine. There are a few different ways to prepare yaupon holly leaves for brewing tea. The easiest and most effective method for freeing the caffeine is to air-dry them by cutting of a branch, hanging it indoors in a warm, dry area (not in direct sunlight) and let the leaves dry naturally. Most of the leaves will fall off the branch as they dry so lay a towel or something under it to catch the leaves. This method can take two weeks or more depending on the temperature and humidity. Slow-drying it like this allows naturally-occurring enzymes inside the plant cells to begin breaking holes through the cell wall. These holes allow the caffeine to escape into your hot water when making tea.
Forced-drying the leaves in a dehydrator or an oven set at 200F is popular. It is fast, usually taking just a day and this quick drying but will not allow as much caffeine to be released compared to slow air-drying. Leaves done this way are somewhat similar to green tea in mouth-appeal. It doesn't taste like green tea, but it has several similar "under-flavors", if that makes any sense.
The most complex, richest flavors comes from roast-drying the leaves in an oven set at 400F. This requires some practice and experimentation. Lay the leaves on a cookie-sheet. There can be some overlap but each leaf needs some exposure to the air. Put the cookie-sheet in the oven and watch the leaves as they turn brown. The darker you let the leaves get the more roasted and complex flavors you will release. Warning: if they get too dark they have a scorched flavor.
Caffeine has recently been shown to help protect the brain from Alzheimer's disease, which is pretty dang awesome!!