Yerba Mate, a tea made from the tree Ilex paraguariensis, met my palate this afternoon when I was searching for an alternative to my bottomless coffee cup. I found Yerba Mate on a list of loose teas offered at my local coffee shop. The name Mate brought me back to the year 2000. That year, I was also sitting in a coffee shop sipping Mate, albeit at a much higher altitude. I was in La Paz, Bolivia and there Mate is referred to as Mate de Coca. Mate de Coca is a refreshing and energizing tea made from steeping the leaves of a different plant, the infamous Coca plant (Erythroxylum coca). I'm indebted to the Bolivian Coca plant and one Bolivia lady who helped me cure an allergy with Coca leaves. The Bolivian lady taught me to bite the Coca leaves to release medicinal components and place them on my face where I suffered from this allergy, the picture below shows the severity. I was allergic to alpaca fur but I mistook my allergy symptoms for those of a common cold. As my allergies became worse, ironically, I kept warm by hiding in layers and layers of alpaca-fur coats and blankets. If I'm ever near Alpaca again, I'll carry Coca leaves with me!
I expected these two similar sounding teas to taste alike. To my surprise Yerba Mate tasted nothing like Mate de Coca. Unlike Coca's mild flavour, I found Yerba Mate to be bitter with a hard to describe aftertaste. For lack of a better comparison, the Yerba Mate aftertaste vaguely resembled the flavour of tobacco.
Because I am fascinated by where plants come from I couldn't pass up the opportunity to find out what plant I was drinking. With the help of wikipedia's invisible scholars, I learned that Ilex paraguaiensis (Yerba Mate) is a forest plant found in the southern parts of South America, in Paraguay, Uruguay, Argentina, and Brazil. When you order a Yerba Mate, you are likely savouring leaves from tea plantations or from trees planted in their native forest habitats. Like the popular green tea, Yerba Mate leaves are processed before they hit your teapot. The main difference between Mate and green tea is the drying method. Mate is dried slowly using wood smoke and green tea is dried fast at high temperatures.
Content to know what I was drinking, my curiosity turned to the human beings who first found this plant and decided it was good to drink. I'm rarely successful finding this type of information online, and this time was no exception. I'm convinced we rarely read about the people behind plants because those writing about ethnobotany are mostly pharmaceutical researchers. As an ethnobotanist, I am often associated with pharmaceutical work too. For example, just in the last week a few people have assumed I work for a pharmaceutical company when I mentioned I'm an ethnobotanist.
From the little information available, I read that Yerba Mate tea was first used by the Guaraní people of South America. I can't be sure of my sources, but it appears that when this tea was discovered by Jesuit priests, these priests tried to stop Indigenous peoples from drinking it (maybe because of its perceived demonic properties). However, the Jesuits that came in contact with Yerba Mate must have liked something about it because this tea made it all over Europe, quick. The desire for Yerba Mate is a story waiting to be told; I think it would make a good project for Michael Pollan and his work on the Botany of Desire.
Although its medicinal properties were no doubt clearly known by the Guarani people, western science has found Yerba Mate to be good to treat parasites, high cholesterol, and inflammation; it also has caffeine in it so I guess this wasn't my best choice for a coffee substitute.