If you’d like to take a step to the environmentalist side of the line for a moment, producing caffeine drinks at home can also help save the world by limiting shipping and reducing loss of forest in tea and coffee producing countries.
While coffee plants might not be an option due to climate or the attention they might garner and the space that might be required, there are options that will blend very easily into suburban homes and small homesteads or larger farms. Unfortunately, many of the most productive caffeine plants prefer warm climates, but some may be candidates as a greenhouse shrub in other areas.
There are several holly species with higher concentrations of caffeine than coffee, although great care should be used with them – some hollies are toxic. Some hollies are also safe for consumption, but have no or negligible caffeine. Yerba mate, Ilex guayusa, and Ilex vomitoria are all documented as caffeine power houses. Ilex vomitoria, the yaupon holly, is actually a native in the Southeast and can be found in coastal forests and marshes. In the wild, it has spread inland to the eastern half of Texas and North Carolina, and can be a die-hard addition to gardens.
The yaupon’s scientific name hints at one drawback: in too great a concentration, brewed too strong and consumed in too great a quantity, holly tea can induce vomiting. A cup of dried, pan roasted leaves has never hurt me, but people who are sensitive to caffeine might want to go very slow and try adding just a leaf or two to herbal tea for a caffeine boost, because the yaupon contains a crazy amount of go. Yaupon holly was one of several plants southerners turned to during the War Between the States.
It doesn’t taste like coffee and it doesn’t taste like black tea. None of them do, really. Yaupon has a flavor reminiscent of strong black tea with a slight bitter aftertaste, like that last sip when a few Irish breakfast tea leaves have escaped and land right in the middle of the tongue.
American hollies Ilex opaca and Ilex verticillata have no caffeine, but can help modulate the flavor and bring it more in line with “regular” black tea flavor. So can apple mint, calendula, lavender, and tea leaves. The caffeine hollies also work well when added to a chicory-dandelion root mix, hitting a flavor a little closer to lousy freeze-dried instant coffee and giving it a caffeine boost.
In the case of holly, it is the leaves, not a seed, that contain the caffeine. Some will brew it green, some will allow leaves to air dry, and some will cure it in tobacco sheds. My experience has been mostly in dry roasting green leaves in a pan, then pouring boiling coffee over them. It can be crushed into a powder or flaked like tea leaves as well. Like many herbs, over time the potency and flavor decline. Because it is an evergreen, storing the leaves for winter and spring isn’t as much of an issue.
Yaupon holly does not make a great foundation hedge. It’s too tall and will grow vigorously enough to wreck a 5x8’ shed on a too-thin slab of concrete. However, its South American cousins can handle trimming for around homes. All three – and their tasty if decaf cousins – also work well as border shrubs and can be used as windbreaks and privacy screens like the many inedible hollies already used all around the country.
The non-herbal Earl Grey, Twinnings and Starbucks tea some of us drink regularly all come from the same species of plant: Camellia sinensis. Black, white, green, oolong, pu-erh, or yellow, it’s almost certainly from a strain of C. sinensis. The strength, health benefits, and flavor variations come from the various treatments and age at harvest.
Luckily, sinensis will grow pretty much anywhere is pretty pink cousins will grow, usually zones 7-9 but with winter protection or hoops it can handle Zone 6 and heated greenhouses will open it up further. Camellia is not overly picky about its sun or soil, either. It can handle neutral to heavily acidic soils, sand to loam, although it does not do well in direct clay or alkaline soils. A 3x3’ bed 30” deep with a 12” bottom fill of leaves or mulch or composting material and top fill of a healthy soil can give it the base it needs to attain full size and production. It also responds well to lasagna-style and hugelultur beds that are either subset into the soil with at least a foot or 18” of height to assist in drainage. They can also handle the light shade of an open woods environment, and might need some shelter from harsh afternoon sun in some climates.
Camellia sinesis is not self-fertile, so more than one plant or a grafted plant is required. It’s a relatively large shrub, hitting 10 to 15 feet in height and five to eight feet in spread, although it grows very slowly. Roots won’t dwarf, but pruning can help control the height of the plant for harvest, shading and view, or to keep it to a size that can be contained in a roll-back or drop-down hoop house.
Two cultivars are most commonly used in commercial settings, C. sinensis var. sinensis and C. sinensis var. assamica. Some prefer the Chinese-bred sinensis v. sinensis as an all-around better grower and yielder. Any sinensis cultivar is appropriate for tea. Other camellia aren’t toxic, but may be seriously lacking in flavor or caffeine, or can hasten the risks to pregnant women, children, and patients with liver, heart and thyroid problems.
Camellia sinensis was reclassified from the old use of Camellia theifera and Thea sinensis, and may still be found marketed under those names. Other C. sinensis cultivars are available regionally. In some parts of the world, each village has its own strain or two, each with subtle differences but equally tasty. Online dealers can be found that specialize in tea strains, and may be able to help locate a local nursery.
Like the hollies, the caffeine comes from the leaves. Younger leaves have a more delicate flavor but also less caffeine. Fermentation is used to create the oolong flavor. For green tea, young shoots are steamed for 5 to 20 minutes, then dried. For others, leaves are wilted, bruised, and either dried at 125 to 175 degrees, or low roasted at 250. It can take twenty or thirty minutes, or a couple of hours depending on the system used. The breakdowns create the differing flavors and affect the availability of caffeine from the leaves. Once dry, those processes stop. The leaves can be ground, flaked, or brewed or stored as they are.
Leaves can be harvested regularly throughout the season, as quickly as weekly on large bushes or spaced out to ten or fourteen days for smaller specimens or those growing with less heat and less light.
In addition to the caffeinated tea, camellia can produce oil from the seeds, which can be used as a substitute for cooking, and extracted oil for herbal remedies.
Other plants, from coffee and cacao to guarana to kola nut, contain significant levels of caffeine. Other garden specimens contain slighter traces. There are also options that more closely resemble the flavor of coffee or dark tea, or that provide a stimulant that acts much like caffeine does. Growing caffeine right at home might not appeal to some, but it’s one way to lower grocery bills and dependence on the outside world, and caffeine is something regularly listed in the “I’ll miss” and “barter” sections of long-term preparedness forums.
The joy of the holly and camellia is that they are perennials that are common enough to blend in around the suburbs, yet are easily incorporated into growing schemes large and small. While they aren’t appropriate for every climate, a pair or trio of shrubs can make a big difference now and later, for trade and health benefits, and for morale.