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Where does yerba mate actually grow and can you cultivate it yourself?

2023-12-18
Where does yerba mate actually grow and can you cultivate it yourself?

Yerba mate is a stimulating drink discovered by the Guarani Indians that is now gaining popularity around the world. It is made from the leaves and twigs of Ilex paraguariensis, a plant that naturally occurs only in South America. If you've ever wondered where yerba mate grows, under what conditions, and whether you can grow it yourself, we have the answer!

Summary:

  1. Where does yerba mate grow?
  2. Can yerba mate be grown in your own garden?

Where does yerba mate grow?

Yerba mate is made from the Paraguayan holly plant, whose botanical Latin name is Ilex paraguariensis. The plant belongs to the more than 600 species of the holly family, which can be found on almost every continent. Although Ilex paraguariensis is not found in Europe, another popular species found in our continent is Christmas holly (Ilex aquifolium), which plays a mainly decorative role, adorning homes and flats during the winter and Christmas seasons. Other popular holly species include, for example, Ilex guayusa from Ecuador and Peru, Ilex cassine and Ilex vomitoria from North America, as well as Ilex kudingcha and Ilex latifolia from Asia. Each of these plants is used to make infusions with different, similar properties.

What does it look like and where does Ilex paraguariensis grow?

Returning to the Ilex paraguariensis, from which yerba mate is made – it is an evergreen tree that naturally occurs only in certain areas of South America, within Brazil, Paraguay, Argentina and Uruguay. There, the plant grows both in the wild and in plantations, which often coexist with natural ecosystems, providing the right conditions for it to thrive. It can reach a maximum height of up to 15 metres, although it is usually less than 10 metres tall. Ilex paraguariensis has hard, glossy and intense green leaves with finely toothed edges. They are dark on top, while their underside is slightly lighter in colour. The flavour and energy potential of the resulting yerba mate infusion from its leaves and twigs largely depends on the location of the plantation from which the holly bush comes. It is usually assumed that with increased exposure to the sun, the concentration of caffeine contained in the leaves and twigs of the plant increases.

Yerba mate – the sacred plant of the Guarani Indians

Yerba mate is appreciated primarily for its stimulating properties. Nowadays, we treat the Paraguayan holly simply as an ordinary plant, which is used to make an infusion with similar effects to coffee or tea. However, hundreds of years ago, the Guarani Indians believed that yerba mate was a gift sent to them by the gods. Once there, they discovered that after consuming the leaves from the wild-growing plant, they had more energy, their senses were sharpened and they did not feel hungry. Yerba mate soon became an integral part of the Indians' daily life and, as they were a very religious people, their beliefs and legends enriched the traditions associated with preparing and drinking the brew. Unfortunately, the Guarani Indians did not know how to cultivate the plant, so they only used leaves and twigs collected from wild-growing trees and shrubs. The situation changed when the conquistadors arrived in South America, and with them missionaries from the Jesuit order. The Jesuits were in charge of the so-called reductions, whose aim was not only to spread Christianity among the Indians, but also to learn about their culture. It was inevitable that the Jesuits learned about yerba mate and became fascinated by the unusual plant. They were the first to describe Ilex paraguariensis and decided to establish the first plantations. However, it turned out that cultivating the plant was not that simple at all. The seeds that they plucked from the fruit did not want to germinate – they were covered with a thick “shell” through which the embryo could not penetrate on its own. Wild-growing plant is spread by birds, which, after eating its fruit, excrete the seeds – digested and stripped of their casing. It was only when the Jesuits carefully studied this process that they were able to start planting yerba mate seeds and growing the plant on a large scale.

Yerba mate plantation

Can yerba mate be grown in your own garden?

Many yerba mate lovers wonder whether it is possible to grow it at home. Of course, you can try – such an experiment will certainly prove to be very interesting. However, growing yerba mate and cultivating it in a pot or garden in Europe can be quite difficult, and this is because the plants need the right temperature and climate.

Natural conditions for the cultivation of yerba mate

Yerba mate is only found in four South American countries. This is because, in order to grow properly, the plant needs strictly defined conditions – the right soil quality, humidity, air temperature and the right level of sunlight. Importantly, the young plants are very sensitive and therefore need gently diffused sunlight. Such conditions are ensured by tall trees growing in the Amazon jungle, providing protection from the sun. The pH of the soil is very important for the proper development of Ilex paraguariensis, which should be between 5.8 and 6.8. As the natural habitat of this plant is the fertile South American soils, surrounded by tropical forests, the right humidity and temperature must not be forgotten. A temperature between 20 and 23 degrees Celsius and moderate humidity is optimal. Altitude is not insignificant – plantations are usually located between 400 and 800 metres above sea level. Given these factors, it is easy to conclude that growing yerba mate in Europe, would be really complicated. But, there is nothing stopping you from trying! How to do it?

How to grow yerba mate at home?

Seeds of yerba mate can be purchased from a specialist shop. Sometimes you can also find ready-made seedlings. When starting the adventure of planting yerba mate from seeds, you should first soak them in water for 24 hours and then sow them into the ground to a depth of about 3-4 millimetres, remembering the right pH of the soil. The plant needs patience – germination can take up to several months, but it is worth the wait! In the beginning, holly is sensitive to light, so it needs to be sheltered. At a later stage of development, it already needs a fair amount of natural light. It also requires a fair amount of water – best watered every three days, but taking care not to “overwater” the plant. Of course, if you manage to grow yerba mate at home, it will never match the size of the shrubs found in South America, and the infusion from its leaves will lack the properties typical of a "full-sized" plant. However, a self-grown plant can act as an interesting decoration in the living room.


Source of information:

  1. Wikipedia: Yerba mate, Mate, Holly.
  2. C.I. Heck, E.G. De Mejia, Yerba Mate Tea (Ilex paraguariensis): A Comprehensive Review on Chemistry, Health Implications, and Technological Considerations, Journal of Food Science, 2007.

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