The Yaupon Holly

The yaupon holly, or cassina, is an attractive verdant plant native to the southeastern United States. Its red berries give the plant a festive look similar to that of other plants in the same genus, which we tend to use for holiday decorations. The scientific name for yaupon holly is Ilex vomitoria, which to some folks might suggest something not worth celebrating. As it turns out, however, yaupon was a crucial part of a Native American ceremony performed by tribes in Florida and across the region.

The yaupon plant, Ilex vomitoria (1964).

The yaupon plant, Ilex vomitoria (1964).

Purification was a common theme in the religious ceremonies of many Southeastern natives. One such tradition, called the “black drink” ceremony, involved the men of a town imbibing a tea made from the leaves of the yaupon holly. European observers associated the consumption of this tea with vomiting among those who drank it, hence the name Ilex vomitoria, although there is some debate among scholars as to whether that reaction was to the tea or to other factors.  At any rate, part of the significance of this practice was the belief that it helped purify the mind and body. The frequency of this ceremony varied; in some contexts it was performed daily, while in others it was reserved for when guests arrived or for other special occasions. Jacques Le Moyne de Morgues, a member of the short-lived French colony at Fort Caroline, depicted the tradition in a watercolor painting in the 1560s. Theodor de Bry later incorporated the image in his Grand Voyages, published in 1591 to entice Europeans to further colonize the Americas.

DeBry engraving depicting a ceremony involving the

DeBry engraving depicting a ceremony involving the “black drink” (1591).

Osceola, the Anglicized name of a prominent 19th century Seminole, is derived from the Creek, asi-yahola, which means “black drink cry.” Curiously, Osceola is often remembered as “Chief Osceola,” although he was neither born nor selected as such.

Illustration of Osceola (here spelled Aseola), a 19th-century Seminole leader (1842).

Illustration of Osceola (here spelled Aseola), a 19th-century Seminole leader (1842).

Check out the Florida Photographic Collection for more images relating to topics such as Florida’s diverse plant life and the history of the Seminoles!

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One thought on “The Yaupon Holly

  1. I recall each Christmas my grandmother gathering and decorating with the berry-filled limbs from the yaupon. I now think of her each time I see the shrubs red with berries.

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