So, what is yerba mate? Yerba mate is a South American drink brewed from dried leaves and twigs of the holly genus plant, with the botanical name Ilex paraguariensis. Yerba mate grows as a shrub or small tree that can reach up to 15 meters high. This evergreen tree is a species of holly that produces small greenish white four petal flowers and a red berry. When the yerba mate leaves and twigs are brewed, the tea is similar to green tea. It is said to be best brewed in hot, not boiling, water.
Yerba mate has become known as the national drink of Brazil, Paraguay, and Argentina. The rich tea is said to be a stimulating herbal beverage. Some use it to replace coffee with its ability to wake up the mind without the adverse effects of coffee. Known in some areas of South America as “The Drink of the Gods”, yerba mate is thought to possess a host of health benefits. Most of which help prolong life.
The history of Yerba Mate can be traced back to the semi-nomadic Guarani people of southern Brazil, northern Argentina and Paraguay. These forest nomads are said to be the earliest known people to harvest and drink the stimulating yerba mate beverage. Legend has it that the Guarani believe the yerba mate tree to be a gift given to a group of weary travelers by a benevolent god as a reward for their righteousness. This legend eventually carried on giving yerba mate tea its “Drink of the Gods” nickname. The Guarani were said to use yerba mate as a daily tonic for health. They gather around a fire to socialize and pass around the gourd of yerba mate. This ancient custom of drinking yerba mate from a gourd became a tradition.
Even today it continues to be a daily habit of the people now living in this area. Yerba mate also became a central part of their system of medicine and healing. The tea became an important part of spiritual rituals. It also also served as currency for them when trading with the Incas and Charruas.
In the sixteenth century, Spanish conquistadores arrived in Argentina. When they arrived, they discovered the native people drinking their gourd of yerba mate tea. The Spaniards enjoyed this stimulating drink. They persuaded the people to teach them how to brew their own yerba mate tea. As demand for yerba mate started to rise, the Jesuits decided to begin harvesting and cultivating it on yerba mate plantations.
By the 1600’s they had discovered a way to germinate yerba seeds. As a result, their plantations flourished and expanded the consumption of yerba mate into Ecuador. But in 1767, the Jesuits were expelled. And with it, all of their knowledge on the cultivation of yerba mate was expelled along with them. Forest harvesting continued until the early 20th century. As a result, the secret to yerba mate seed germination was discovered once again and plantation cultivation was once again a reality.
Today, plantation cultivation of yerba mate continues in parts of Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay, and Paraguay. The custom of cultivation has remained pretty much unchanged and the custom of drinking yerba mate tea has gone global. In many areas of South America, yerba mate tea is still a social ritual and people continue to drink it for its taste and the way it makes them feel.
Continue reading more about yerba mate and the traditional yerba mate ritual.
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