Spill the Tea: The history of tea in Michigan

Spill the Tea: The history of tea in Michigan

Holly Long

I love tea; I drink it every single day. It is warm, hydrating, and is known for healing properties. But the tea leaves most drink today are imported and are not indigenous to North America and are rarely grown here. Tea leaves, not including herbal blends, all come from the same plant, Camellia sinensis, a tropical flora not suitable to the drastic climatic changes found in Michigan. This plant grows at many altitudes and can be dried or roasted to produce the variety of “colors” we can purchase today. It has been utilized for medicinal and social consumption for centuries, depending on preparation and its caffeinated properties. Though it does contain caffeine, it has lower levels than coffee beans once it is brewed, making it a less popular drink among the caffeine addicted populations in North America.

An image of a Yaupon Holyl bush with bright red berries.
Yaupon Holly bush. Image from Wikipedia.

But if we cannot grow this plant in Michigan, how could people have been drinking tea (dried leaves in water) for ages? While tea comes from Camellia sinensis, dried leaves, herbs, and berries steeped in water were consumed long before commercial tea plantations came to fruition. Other plants were used, depending on the local flora, to create ritual or nutritional drinks. The Yaupon, a relative in the Holly family, is the only native plant in Michigan to contain caffeine, allowing for its medicinal use. Caffeine is a toxin produced by plants to ward off insects and to stop them from eating the leaves but such low levels are almost harmless to humans (not including the caffeine addicted today). However, the effects can be felt and can provide short term energy and the feeling of being wide awake which made it ideal for rituals or being included in fasting periods. One example of archaeological evidence for the consumption of holly comes from outside of Michigan at the site of Cahokia, near modern-day St. Louis, Missouri. Known as a site where many individuals converge for ceremonial purposes (bringing a variety of trade goods with them), the ceramic pots left at the site were scraped and analyzed by archaeologists to determine their former contents. Substances such as caffeine and methylxanthines were detected and the ratios of these chemicals corroborates the use of the holly plant in these vessels. This confirms that people have been utilizing the plant life around them for hot and cold drinks for thousands of years for a variety of purposes.

But not all teas were used for its caffeine in rituals and fasting. Some teas were utilized for the nutrients they provided. In the harsh winters here in the north, food becomes scarcer and less various which means certain nutrient deficiencies might set in. Using the abundant pine needles in the area made tea that added much needed vitamin C back in the diet and provided a warm drink during cold times. Many plants in this area were known for their medicinal properties and were utilized by the native people to cure ailments of the stomach, throats, skin, and joints. Edible plants such as the yarrow, mullein, blackberries, wild rose, and honeysuckle and herbs like sage, mint, and rosemary can be dried and steeped or mashed into liquids to help ease different pains and issues. Many of these plants were not found during the winter and were dried to preserve them much like the leaves of Camellia sinensis are dried and oxidized for tea-drinking purposes.

A top down image of botanical ingredients laid out next to a ceramic mortar and pestle, which is held by a hand of a person out of frame.
Images of medicinal plants. Image from PPM Tree.

Not only could these plants be consumed but they were used to heal wounds on the body as well through poultices. Autumn is the time of harvest, the perfect time to finish foraging for these plants and drying them in preparation of Winter. In the final few days of sunny weather, you can embrace the Michigander’s love of the outdoors and learn to drink these nourishing and healing plants that may grow in your own backyard.


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