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Ilex paraguariensis without secrets – yerba mate with a botanist's eye

2023-11-20
Ilex paraguariensis without secrets – yerba mate with a botanist's eye

As you probably already know, yerba mate is an infusion made from the leaves and twigs of the Ilex paraguariensis – Paraguayan holly plant. Today, we are going to focus on this plant, find out where it comes from, what it looks like and which plants it is closely related to. Get to know holly!

Summary:

  1. Ilex paraguariensis as an ingredient in energising infusions
  2. Ilex paraguariensis – origin
  3. Ilex paraguariensis – what does it look like?
  4. From bush to infusion. Does Ilex paraguariensis have medicinal properties?
  5. Ilex paraguariensis – can it be grown at home?





Ilex paraguariensis as an ingredient in energising infusions

Hundreds of years ago, the Guarani Indians living in the areas of Paraguay, Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay discovered a miracle tree that grew in the jungle surrounding their tribe. They did not yet know that it was Ilex paraguariensis, but they were well aware of its properties. They noticed that by chewing the freshly picked leaves, they felt stimulated, energised and more strongly concentrated. These properties proved very useful during hours of gruelling hunting. The plant became so important in their culture that they surrounded it with an almost religious cult, believing it to be a gift from the gods. For many years, the plant was their secret – until the arrival in South America in the 17th century of invaders from overseas and with them missionaries from the Jesuit Order, who took an interest in Indian life and culture. A plant, called caá mati by the natives, caught the monks' particular attention. The Jesuits gave the plant a new name, combining the Spanish word hierba, the Portuguese erva and the Latin herba (all meaning "herb"), and the word mati, which in the Quechuan language means "calabash" (a vessel made from the natural fruit of the calabash in which an infusion of Ilex paraguariensis leaves is drunk). This is how yerba mate we know today came to be.

Yerba mate – is it a tea?

You will often come across the terms “yerba mate tea” or “Paraguayan tea”. These are not entirely correct. Although tea and yerba mate have a lot in common – they are infusions based on dried and crushed leaves, hot water is needed to brew them and the preparation process itself creates a kind of ritual, they contain vitamins, minerals and caffeine, albeit in different concentrations – the most important difference is the plant from which they are made. Tea (Camellia sinensis in Latin) and yerba mate (Ilex paraguariensis in Latin) are two different plants, belonging to different species and, in addition, found in completely different parts of the world. So why do terms such as “Paraguayan tea” appear? It is probably a remnant of the activities of the Jesuits, who tried to spread yerba mate to Europeans. It was much easier to present the miraculous brew of the Guarani Indians as “tea” made from the leaves of Ilex paraguariensis, rather than the exotic “yerba mate”.

Ilex paraguariensis – origin

Let's go back to what yerba mate is and how it has become increasingly popular around the world. The plant began to be studied as early as the 19th century. The Latin name, Ilex paraguariensis, was given by the French botanist Augustin Saint-Hilaire in 1822. Although yerba mate lovers can now be found almost all over the world, the area of occurrence of the Paraguayan holly is strictly defined and limited to only four South American countries: Brazil, Paraguay, Argentina and Uruguay. The first three are considered to be the world's top producers and exporters of yerba mate. In Uruguay, although yerba mate bushes grow naturally, there is usually no production of dried yerba mate from their leaves. This has to do with the country's poor economic and business situation. The occurrence of yerba mate in South America is closely linked to the fact that the plant needs the right conditions to grow properly. One of these is the altitude, which should be between 400 and 800 metres above sea level. In addition, the type of soil is an important consideration. Ilex paraguariensis likes fertile soil, rich in mineral salts and with a slightly acidic pH. Air temperature and sun exposure and environment are also very important. As for the temperature, the optimum level is 20-25 degrees Celsius. Yerba mate is most often found surrounded by tall trees, which provide them with adequate dispersion of sunlight, which is significant especially for young specimens of the Paraguayan holly.

Ilex paraguariensis

Ilex paraguariensis – what does it look like?

Ilex paraguariensis, from which yerba mate is produced, is an evergreen tree in the holly family. It is a very large group of plants that usually take the form of trees or shrubs. What they have in common are single green leaves and fleshy berries, typically red. Interestingly, Ilex paraguariensis is related to the well-known Christmas holly (Ilex aquifolium), which is found in Europe. Also closely related is the Ecuadorian Ilex guayusa, also known as simply guayusa. The plant, the same as Ilex paraguariensis is used to make an infusion, which has similar effects as yerba mate but with a slightly milder, more herbal taste.

Ilex paraguariensis can reach up to a dozen metres in height, although usually adult specimens grow to around 8 metres. It has smooth, light-coloured bark and shiny leaves, inverted egg-shaped, serrated and reaching up to several centimetres in length. The flowering period of holly is in the last quarter of the year and usually lasts from October to December. The small white or cream flowers then transform into round, red fruits. However, it is the leaves and stems that are the most valuable part of the plant – they are used to prepare precious infusions that are valued worldwide, and extracts of holly are even used in cosmetics.

From bush to infusion. Does Ilex paraguariensis have medicinal properties?

Mate, the famous South American tea, is nothing more than an infusion based on the leaves and twigs of Ilex paraguariensis. To enjoy its extraordinary properties, however, it is not enough to simply pluck fresh leaves from the tree and add water. In the reality of commercial cultivation, up to 40 kilograms of leaves can be obtained from each bush. They are evergreen and are harvested once every two or three years. This is because it is after this time that they reach full maturity and exhibit the most valuable properties. The plant is harvested by hand by cutting off small twigs with the leaves. The harvested raw material is dried over a special hearth or using hot air. It is then finely ground and packed into jute bags for ageing. Depending on the expected flavour of the infusion, this can take several months. Longer seasoned Paraguayan holly generally has a more balanced character, without intense bitterness. After ageing, many producers choose to grind the whole again. It is only when the raw material is processed in this way that it can find its way into packets and onto shop shelves, and finally end up as an ingredient in a healthy and naturally caffeinated brew!

So, what is contained in the leaves of Ilex paraguariensis and, at the same time, in the yerba mate infusion? The most important ingredient in the Paraguayan holly “tea” is caffeine, which stimulates, increases concentration and eliminates the feeling of fatigue. The stimulating effect of yerba mate is so strong that more and more people are considering the infusion as an alternative to coffee. In addition, yerba mate contains many compounds that are valuable to the body, such as vitamins, minerals, polyphenols and chlorogenic acid. You can read more about the properties of yerba mate on our blog.

Ilex paraguariensis – can it be grown at home?

To conclude, we will address a question that you ask us very often: is it possible to grow Ilex paraguariensis at home? As you know, Europe is located far from the plant's natural distribution zone. However, it turns out that there is nothing stopping you from growing it in your own four corners! However, a few important rules must be observed. After purchasing the seeds, it will be necessary to soak them in lukewarm water for one day. Only then they can be sown. Paraguayan holly requires soil with a pH between 5.8 and 6.8. The seeds should be placed in the soil at a depth of 3-4 millimetres, and the pot should be placed in a sunny and warm place. The optimum temperature for the plant to develop is 23°C-25°C during the day and 18°C-20°C at night. If all these requirements are met, your potted holly can grow to a height of several tens of centimetres. However, do not count on a harvest of caffeine-rich leaves. Of course, you can prepare mate tea from them. However, there will be so little dried product that it is probably better to leave the bush alone and treat it only as an ornament. And when the mood strikes you for an infusion, simply reach for your favourite store-bought yerba mate!


Source of information:

  1. Yerba mate, Mate (drink).
  2. A. Gawron-Gzella, J. Chanaj-Kaczmarek, J. Cielecka-Piontek, Yerba Mate – A Long but Current History, Nutrients, 2021.

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