What Do Christmas Decorations and Coffee Have in Common?

We may not have snow, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t beginning to look a lot like Christmas on Jekyll Island.  Take this shrub along the boardwalk, for example.

What’s Christmasy about that, you ask?  Take a closer look.

See those red berries?  Have you guessed yet?  This is Yaupon Holly (pronounced YOE-pon), Ilex vomitoria.

If you’re thinking “Huh, those don’t look like holly leaves,” it’s probably because you’re picturing the spine-edged leaves of American Holly, Ilex opaca.  We have that here, too; it’s a full-sized tree, as opposed to the usually shrubbier Yaupon.  But really, Yaupon Holly is the more interesting of the two.  I mean, come on, you know there has to be a good story behind a species name like vomitoria.

You see, Yaupon Holly happens to be the only plant native to North America that produces a significant amount of a chemical we humans are very fond of: caffeine.  Naturally, American Indians in the Southeast had discovered its amazing properties and were brewing it into a hot beverage long before some certain beans you may have heard of made their way here from Ethiopia.  In reading up on this plant I’ve come across a couple different versions of what, exactly, this has to do with vomiting.  Some say the American Indians would actually drink their “black drink,” or Asi, until they vomited, some say there was a tribe that had a ceremony that included both the black drink and vomiting and Europeans made the understandable but erroneous assumption that the one caused the other.  In any case, when this species was given its Latin designation it was memorably dubbed “holly that makes you vomit.”  According to Wikipedia, the black drink was the exclusive province of men – women couldn’t even help prepare it.  Good thing I wasn’t a Guale Indian!

Though the berries (of all hollies, not just this one) are somewhat toxic to humans, they’re an important food source for birds.  They also add a bit of holiday cheer to the island.  Of course, this doesn’t mean I’m not still dreaming of a white Christmas.  Sigh.  Two more days of work until break!

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