When you think of the genus Ilex, what comes to mind? Chances are it’s the brilliant gleam of red berry-like drupes and glossy green foliage of the evergreen American holly (Ilex opaca) against the blinding whiteness of freshly fallen snow. Or, perhaps, you prefer the deciduous winterberry holly (Ilex verticillate), naked throughout the winter but with fruit that is equally appealing to the eye (human and bird alike). Usually associated with the holiday season, hollies are often a key component of wreathes, garland, and Aunt Marty’s Christmas cards, but their ornamental uses stretch throughout every season. With a large range and long lifespan (over 100 years for some species), members of Ilex have been treasured for centuries and continue to play a key role in landscapes throughout much of the United States.
You may also be thinking, “Carrie, what the heck does this have to do with your Starbucks order?” That’s a valid question, but I ask that you stick with me. (The answer is that the relevance is fairly skewed, but we will get there soon.)
It Takes Two
Hollies have the great honor of being from a monotypic family, meaning that of the family, Aquifoliaceae, Ilex is the only living genus. And the fact that Ilex has the most species of any woody *dioecious angiosperm genus is just another feather in its cap. Though there are over a dozen species of Ilex that are indigenous to North America (and quite a few non-native species represented in the nursery industry), it turns out that there are about 400 species distributed worldwide. In fact, the holly family is well represented in most temperate and tropical regions across the globe.
*Dioecious reproduction, from the Ancient Greek word dioikía for “two households,” refers to plant species that have distinct unisexual individuals. While the plants that make male flowers only produce sperm-packed pollen, the plants that produce female flowers only produce blooms equipped with ovaries that develop into fruit upon fertilization. Only about 6% of flowering plant species are thought to use this reproductive strategy.
Ever wonder why your holly doesn’t produce fruit…. perhaps, it’s a boy! (Or, it’s a female ‘Red Sprite’ with no ‘Jim Dandy’ nearby.)
In the central to southern parts of South America, you will find a unique Ilex species that not only grows wild as an understory shrub in the Atlantic Forest - a biodiversity hotspot you may recall mentioned in my article on Tree Ferns - but also has a large economic impact on countries in its native region: Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay, and Argentina. Ilex paraguariensis, commonly referred to as yerba mate (mate for short), is prized not primarily for ornamental reasons but as a caffeinated refreshment! Its leaves and stems are dried and chopped to create a tea that is consumed by millions in the region. The region’s indigenous Guaraní people were the first consumers of mate, and its consumption became widespread following European colonization in the late 16th century. Yerba mate remains a popular tradition to this day.
Mate is a versatile drink, and it’s not uncommon for it to be infused with other flavorings and herbs to create tasty blends. Mint, citrus, ginger, and anise are all flavors that are commonly introduced. Traditionally, yerba mate was consumed in a hollowed-out gourd. Today, vessels are made out of many different materials including wood, metal, ceramic, and even cow horns.
Mate is enjoyed not only for the caffeine but also for the experience. The cup is filled three-quarters of the way with dried yerba mate leaf mixture and water is added. When seeped in hot water, the beverage is referred to as mate. However, it is often also enjoyed on warm days, especially by Paraguayans, and is termed tereré when infused with cold water. Yerba mate is enjoyed by drinking through a bombilla, a metal straw with a built-in strainer at the bottom to filter out the loose leaves and stems while drinking.
Something else that makes yerba mate consumption different than, say coffee or other teas, is the rate in which it is consumed. Just enough water is added to fill the small cup, topping the leaves, and the sip of infused tea is enjoyed through the filtered straw. Ready for another drink? Add another bit of water to the cup. Though this takes a bit more commitment than drinking a latte from Starbucks, it does ensure that each sip is nice and hot (or cold if tereré is more your style).
And what’s more fun than drinking yerba mate by yourself? Drinking it with a friend! Mate has a rich history of being enjoyed in a social setting, and it’s not uncommon for its consumption to be a communal ritual among friends and family members. The “brewer” pours a sip for each person, typically passing the container around in a clockwise circle, refilling the cup before passing it to the next person.
Reforestation and Restoration
Ilex paraguariensis is a heat lover, preferring temperatures above 60 degrees Fahrenheit year-round (though it can tolerate cooler temperatures in small doses). It thrives in hot and humid conditions and appreciates plenty of rainfall. In nature, yerba mate occurs most commonly as an understory shrub, growing beneath the shade of other woody plants that make up the forest ecosystem. However, yerba mate has long been domesticated and produced in large-scale monoculture plantation systems (often cleared forest land) with some of the largest in the Misiones and Corrientes provinces of Argentina (the portion the country that cradles southern Paraguay).
However, in recent years more sustainable methods of growing yerba mate have emerged from the need to conserve the increasingly fragmented Atlantic Forest ecosystem. According to The Nature Conservancy, over 85% of the forest’s historic range has been lost. Forest clearing and degradation is a perennial problem, largely due to illegal timber harvests and land conversion, primarily to industrial soy production, forest plantation, and pasture. Despite this, there are hotspots remaining today that maintain high levels of diversity and endemism.
Non-profit organizations, such as Para La Tierra, are striving to restore corridors to connect these remaining fragments by collaborating with local indigenous communities who reside in the Atlantic Forest regions of Paraguay that are experiencing severe forest fragmentation. Together, they are creating agroforestry corridors that combine native trees with shade grown yerba mate. Increasing forest cover will provide more suitable habitat for wildlife and will assist in combatting the adverse impacts of climate change. Additionally, shade grown yerba mate, much like shade grown coffee, is often sought out as a specialty product and can sell for a premium in local markets. To date, over 13,000 saplings have been planted (about half yerba mate with the other half being an assortment of native trees), with another 4,500 are on the way, restoring over seven hectares of degraded land in this partnership. According to Dr. Becca Smith, Para La Tierra Executive Director, their community-based conservation work encompasses:
“…working with local communities to create an agroforestry-based restoration and environmental education program that provides economic returns, improved conservation literacy, increased biodiversity and contributes to mitigating climate change through increasing forest cover in Upper Paraná Atlantic Forest.”
You can learn more about the great work that Para La Tierra does by visiting their website at www.paralatierra.org.