Mystery Plant! #706

John Nelson


By John Nelson

Lots of people in the Southeast –and beyond– grow this plant as a shrub or hedge without really knowing its identity. It is a native evergreen, and it is widely cultivated as a popular yard plant, especially in the South; there are several popular horticultural forms, various of which are excellent for use in topiary. Here in town I’ve seen a tall variety with weeping branches. Some of these forms resemble the common boxwood, with its slow growth and tiny leaves, but boxwood is completely unrelated to our mystery plant. (All boxwoods have their leaves occurring in pairs. Our plant has leaves alternating singly on the stems. Go ahead, take a look.)

It grows naturally from Virginia to eastern Texas. In the Carolinas, it is a coastal plain plant, commonly seen in maritime forests, and extending into counties of the inner coastal plain. In its natural habitat, it can be a small tree, or perhaps more commonly either a slender or broadly-branched shrub. On larger plants the bark is attractive, smooth and grey. The plants are evergreen, bearing small, leathery leaves, which snap if bent end to end. The margins of the leaves are shallowly scalloped; this sort of leaf margin is said to be “crenate.” The flowers are small and white, and not particularly showy, but they are fragrant, and bees love them. The female plants produce beautifully conspicuous red, and quite lustrous as well. (Some varieties have yellow fruits.) I hope that you will remember from botany class that when you have a tree species that has separate “male” and “female” individuals, the term for such a species is dioecious. (The term monoecious, which you also hear sometimes, is used for a species whose separate male and female flowers are found on the SAME individual…such as corn.) But back to our mysterious shrub.

In addition to being an important component of our maritime forests (and other coastal ecosystems) as well as a very pleasing landscape plant, this native has had an additional interesting association with humans: a considerable amount of caffeine is available from the dried leaves. In fact, there is a notion that the American colonists developed a taste for this tea, locally available after all, and which would have been a good back-door way of avoiding the British tax on “real” tea. Native Americans apparently used brews of the leaves as a beverage. Traditional and perhaps somewhat speculative histories indicate, as well, that very strong versions (or perhaps very large doses) of these brews were sometimes used in ceremonial events as a way of purging the system through vomiting. (The scientific name alludes to this tradition.) Otherwise, the plant actually became rather important through much of the South, at least into the early 1800’s, and then again during the Civil War, as an acceptable tea, properly diluted, of course. It is sometimes still served today…I’ll probably stick with Earl Grey.

[You might want to read more about it in “Black Drink: a Native American Tea”, by Charles Hudson, UGA press, 1984.]

(Photo by Linda Lee.) ©JohnNelson2023

Photo by Linda Lee.

[Answer: “Yaupon,” “Yaupon holly,” Ilex vomitoria]

John Nelson is the retired curator of the Herbarium at the University of South Carolina, in the Department of Biological Sciences. As a public service, the Herbarium offers free plant identifications. For more information, visit or email

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