Caffeine. Have you ever thought about what an extraordinary plant-derived drug it is? Or tried to imagine your life without caffeine?
There’s a reason why caffeine is the world’s most widely consumed psychoactive drug, with at least 80% of the adult population in the western hemisphere consuming enough caffeine on a daily basis to induce effects on the brain.
Origins of the three most popular caffeine sources
The three most popular plant sources of caffeine in the west today all have much more ancient origins than Enlightenment age Europe:
- Caffeinated tea has been consumed in China for at least 5,000 years (many people don’t realize that black, white, oolong, green, matcha, and yellow tea are all derived from the same plant, Camellia sinensis);
- Chocolate (from cocoa beans) was consumed by the Olmecs in southern Mexico 3,500 years ago;
- Coffee is actually the new caffeinated kid on the block, originating in Africa and Asia but only gaining popularity as a drink a mere 500 years ago in the Middle East.
Cup per cup, there’s a pretty big difference in caffeine content between these three favorite drinks. A per cup breakdown is as follows:
- filtered coffee – 85mg
- tea – 32mg
- hot chocolate – 4mg
Why do some plants make caffeine?
Obviously, not all plants make caffeine, otherwise people would brew their lawn clippings. Only about 60 species of plants in the world are known to make caffeine.
Why? These plants produce caffeine as a form of chemical protection from pest insects and pathogenic fungi. Insects that chew on the leaves or other parts of the plant get a big dose of caffeine. Unlike in humans, caffeine causes a cascade of negative effects in insects’ nervous systems which can lead to paralysis or death.
How do you grow your own caffeine?
As you may know, coffee (Coffea arabica, Coffea canephora, and hybrids) only grows in very warm or tropical regions of the world.
What about growing chocolate? Unless you live in Hawaii or other extremely warm/tropical areas of the US, don’t even think about it.
So what caffeinated plants can people living in temperate climate zones grow?
1. Yaupon holly (Ilex vomitoria)
Growing zones: 7-9
Depending on where you live, there’s a good chance you already have yaupon holly growing in your yard. In the southeast, yaupon holly is commonly grown as a living border along paths and walkways where it’s sculpted into tidy hedges.
An interesting factoid about yaupon holy: it’s the only plant native to North America that contains caffeine.
As we wrote about in a another tea article:
…Yaupons were of great cultural importance to various Native American groups living in the southeastern US, the plant’s native habitat. They used it both in ceremony and as a welcoming drink when hosting guests.
European settlers referred to the ceremonial Yaupon concoctions the Native Americans made as the “black drink,” and thought that it induced vomiting. This mythology earned the plant its scientific name “vomitoria,” from William Aiton, who grew it in his garden in Kew, England, but never actually drank the tea or even travelled to the New World.
Despite its name and mythology, the leaves of Yaupon holly are quite safe. It’s the plant’s berries that can lead to GI discomfort.
Yaupon holly is an evergreen plant, so you can harvest leaves and young twigs year round to make into a caffeinated tea. If we could only recommend one caffeinated plant for you to grow, it would be this one due to it being a low-maintenance native plant that produces large quantities of tea leaves.
What does yaupon holly tea taste like?
Yaupon holly tea tastes pretty similar to black tea. It’s quite pleasant and nuanced, especially once a bit of sweetener is added. (We like using stevia.)
How much caffeine is in yaupon holly tea?
Yaupon holly has a comparable caffeine level to green and black tea, so you’d need to drink about 2-3 cups of yaupon tea to get a comparable amount of caffeine as a cup of coffee.
2. Tea Camellia (Camellia sinensis)
Growing zones: 7-9
Yes, the classic Asian tea plant, Camellia sinensis, can grow quite well in temperate regions of the United States as well. We have a few Camellia sinensis plants in our yard (Zone 7b). A commercial tea operation, Table Rock Tea Company, is growing Camellia sinensis north of us in a slightly colder microclimate as well.
You can harvest tea leaves year round, using the plant’s new growth. However, the most prized teas (such as vibrant green, ceremonial grade matcha) are made from the new spring growth grown under shade structures, which changes the plant’s chemical and caffeine profile, improving the flavor.
If this sounds like a little more effort than you want to put into growing your own caffeine, no worries. You can grow Camellia sinensis in full sun, harvest new leaves weekly, then dry and use them whenever you want.
You’ll need to drink 2-3 cups of Camellia sinensis tea to get a comparable amount of caffeine to a cup of coffee.
3. Other alternatives
We’ve seen people growing coffee plants indoors in pots in our Ag Zone. In our opinion, this is a lot of work relative to the reward you get. The yield is relatively small and you still have to process and roast your coffee beans after growing them.
But don’t let us stop you from your coffee growing dreams if you’re determined to do so… Or from growing other caffeine-containing tropical plants (kola nuts, guarana berries, yerba mate, etc) indoors or in a heated greenhouse.
Another caffeinated plant option is growing Camellia japonica or Camellia sasanqua (hardiness zones ~7-9), close Asian relatives to the classic tea species, Camellia sinensis. Both species are commonly used in temperate climate landscapes due to their evergreen habit and their large, strikingly beautiful rose-like flowers.
Although they are not traditionally favored for culinary use, their leaves can technically be used to make a tea and they do contain caffeine.
Why grow your own caffeine?
We’d like to encourage you to shift perspectives as to what your yard can be. Currently, the typical American yard is a sterile, monoculture grass lawn that consumes far more water, synthetic fertilizer, and pesticides per acre than the typical conventional farm.
Instead, your yard can serve as an edible oasis of biodiversity that serves numerous ecosystem services. You can grow delicious, nutrient-dense foods and drinks (including caffeinated drinks) for your family. You can create safe habitat for pollinators, birds, and other wildlife. You can store vast quantities of CO2 and other GHGs in your soil using no-till organic and other carbon-farming growing methods/approaches.
Going this route will save you money, improve your health and quality of life, and (hopefully) set you on a life-long course of curiosity and engagement with the natural world around you. It could also give you your morning jolt of caffeine.
Can your grass lawn do that? Then get growing!
Related articles you’ll enjoy sipping on:
- 6 great teas you can make from plants you already have
- Edible Hibiscus sabdariffa: a tasty addition to your garden or edible landscape
- How to grow and make lemon blossom tea
- How to grow and make milk thistle tea
- Top 10 tips to start an organic garden today