Ilex paraguariensis | ‘Yerba Mate’ | Dried plant


‘Yerba Mate’ is the source of the popular South American caffeine-containing drink ‘Mate’. Dried plant.

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Ilex paraguariensis | ‘Chimarrão’, ‘Yerba Mate’ | Dried plant

Ilex paraguariensis – popularly known as ‘Chimarrão’, ‘Paraguay Tea’, ‘Paraguayan Tea’ and ‘Yerba Mate’, is an evergreen shrub to tree species which reaches up approximately fifteen metres or so in height and is native to much of South America. The small (up to just over a centimetre in length by half a centimetre across), serrated leaves of the plant contain caffeine, theobromine and other xanthines and are commonly known as ‘Erva’ or ‘Yerba’. Tiny, green-whitish flowers are accompanied by tiny red fruits, up to approximately six millimetres in diameter. As a member of the Ilex genus, paraguariensis, which grows in USDA Hardiness Zones 9-11, is related to the ‘Holly’ species. Female paraguariensis plants tend to be lower in caffeine and much subtler in flavour than their male counterparts, as well as less common in cultivation.

Consumed by Homo sapiens for many hundreds of years, ‘Yerba Mate’ is popularly used to make the bitter yet flavoursome, caffeine-rich beverage ‘Mate’ (sometimes called ‘Tereré’ when served cold). ‘Mate’ is an important traditional drink in much of South America, with local variations found in parts of Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Paraguay and Uruguay. The drink is also consumed by the Alawite and Druze communities of Lebanon and Syria. ‘Mate’ / ‘Chimarrão’ is made by filling a gourd or similar container with dry paraguariensis leaves and twigs (up to three-quarters) before then filling it with 70–80 °C water and sometimes sugar too. ‘Tereré’ is prepared in a similar fashion, but with cold water. The gourd is then passed around a circle of friends, being drunk by means of the ‘bomba’, or ‘bombilla’ – a simple metal straw. There’s also another type of ‘Mate’, called ‘Chá Mate’, ‘Cocido’ or ‘Mate Cocido’, which is often consumed for breakfast, with either fruit juice, milk or sweeteners.

Besides the aforementioned xanthines, Ilex paraguariensis contains magnesium, manganese, a range of polyphenols (including several flavonoids) and potassium. It has been suggested (backed by varying degrees of convincing evidence) that the consumption of ‘Mate’ may cause MAO inhibition, decrease the risk of diabetes, encourage deeper sleep (although people sensitive to caffeine may find it induces the opposite effect), function as an appetite suppressant, have antioxidant effects, improve mood, reduce fat cells, cholesterol and inflammation, reduce the severity of allergies and sharpen mental acuity and focus. All the alleged benefits aside, however, there’s also some evidence to indicate that the consumption of hot ‘Mate’ may be a factor in cancer of the larynx, oesophageal cancer, oral cancer and squamous cell cancers of the head and neck – although this may perhaps be something to do with the temperature of the tea itself, rather than the specific ingredients.

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