Yerba maté (Ilex paraguariensis)

Yerba maté with a traditional gourd and bombilla

            This month, I made the long trek to Buenos Aires, Argentina to attend an important family event. Amidst all the visits with my aunts, uncles, and cousins, I was reminded of a key component to Argentinian culture that I never before thought about through a botanical lens: yerba maté.

            Yerba maté is a strong-tasting herbal tea that’s made by steeping dried leaves of a subtropical, evergreen plant (Ilex paraguariensis) with hot water. The first thing you notice after drinking maté is its striking bitter taste, and the second is its ability to wake you up! At 78 mg of caffeine per cup, maté has almost as much caffeine as coffee (85 mg per cup).

Typically, maté is prepared in a gourd and drunk through a bombilla, a metal straw that has a filter at the end to allow the tea to pass through but not the leaf chunks. The Guaraní people who lived in what is now Paraguay were the first to make maté prior to the European colonization of South America, and they did so using natural gourds made from the calabaza plant (Lagenaria vulgaris). Interestingly, ‘calabash’ gourds are still the most common maté gourds, and the word ‘yerba maté’, which is a mix of Spanish and Quechua, literally means “herbs from the calabash.” Today, maté is still heavily consumed in Paraguay as well as in Argentina (the world’s largest maté producer), Uruguay, and Brazil.1

Yerba maté plant (I. paraguariensis; left) and calabash (L. vulgaris; right)

            What this long history of maté meant for me was a strong association between maté and my Argentinian relatives. In fact, whenever I think about my maternal aunts, two religious maté drinkers, I imagine them with gourds readily in their hands. Because unlike in the US where coffee or caffeinated tea is generally reserved for the morning hours, many Argentines like my aunts drink maté continuously throughout the day. In particular, drinking maté is often a social event, where friends pass it around while conversing during their leisure time. Unfortunately for me growing up, my tastebuds did not immediately acquire a taste for maté, so I would often opt to drink a soda with my family over sharing maté on these occasions, but now that I’m older I can appreciate more the healthful benefits of this rich drink. For instance, besides caffeine, maté is also packed with many antioxidants and nutrients that have anti-inflammatory and cholesterol-lowering properties.2

            If you’re interested in trying maté in the States, the company Guayakí has taken a modern approach to producing it with wide success: they sell yerba maté sparkling cans, energy drinks, tea bags, as well as packages of loose leaves to make it the traditional way. Like with coffee, there are many ways to sweeten the bitter taste of maté by adding sugar and cream, i.e. making a ‘maté latte. Give it a try and see if you can enjoy the health and social benefits of maté like an Argentine!

References

1Heck, C. and De Mejia, E. (2007), Yerba Mate Tea (Ilex paraguariensis): A Comprehensive Review on Chemistry, Health Implications, and Technological Considerations. Journal of Food Science, 72: R138-R151. doi:10.1111/j.1750-3841.2007.00535.x

2Gawron-Gzella A, Chanaj-Kaczmarek J, Cielecka-Piontek J (2021). Yerba Mate-A Long but Current History. Nutrients, 13(11):3706. doi: 10.3390/nu13113706.

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