Common Name - Yerba Maté

Scientific Name - Ilex paraguariensis


Ilex paraguariensis, a member of the holly family, is an evergreen tree that grows up to 18m tall. It has dark red or purple berry-like fruits and small simple white flowers clustered on inflorescences. Like other hollys, it's glossy leaves have serrated margins. This species is native to subtropical South America namely southern Brazil, Uraguay, Paraguay and Argentina, where it naturally grows in subcanopy of mixed Araucaria forest. Distribution is limited to latitudes between 10°S and 30°S, with an average temperature of 21-22°C, and minimum annual rainfall of 1200mm. The traditional use of Ilex paraguariensis as a stimulating beverage has led to it being cultivated as a perennial crop, commonly managed as a shrub in large plantations.

Fascinating Facts

Ilex paraguariensis  is used to make a tea known as yerba maté, or just maté, which is widely drunk in South America and increasingly popular elsewhere. It was first used by Guaraní Indians who chewed the leaves or made infusions to drink. In South America you will see people drinking the tea from a gourd, through a special straw made of silver or local bamboo called a bombilla. It was first cultivated commercially by Jesuit missionaries in the early 17th century, however it didn't manage to catch the European market like other crops of the new world such as tea, coffee, cacao, and vanilla, which became popular commodities in Europe at the time. It's fame has risen in recent years though, with yerba maté being popularly consumed in North America and Europe as a health drink and nutritional substitute with purported benefits from weight loss and cholesterol reduction, to treatment of insomnia and aphrodisiac effects. Some research suggests possible anti-cancer properties and a potential treatment for diabetes, but further research is required to verify medicinal properties and implement quality control of maté products. If you're trying to give up coffee, maté may make a fine substitute, providing a decent amount of caffeine but higher levels of theobromine, the compound found in cacao which gives a milder but longer-lasting stimulant effect. Other bioactive compounds include chlorogenic acids (strong anti-oxidant), and saponins  (anti-inflammatory, anti-arthritic, anti-parastic, anti-tumour and hepatoprotective) which give the beverage it's bitter taste. The leaves also contain biologically available minerals, most notably potassium and magnesium, as well as high levels of vitamins C, B1 and B2.


(University Instructor, PhD candidate Canterbury Christ Church University)

Jennie studied for a Master’s degree in Ethnobotany at the University of Kent in the UK, and is currently working toward her PhD. She works in northern Tanzania studying the transformations of traditional knowledge systems in response to socio-economic change