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!


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.

Wolf or friend? Wild Lupin (Lupinus perennis)

Wild Lupin in Maine. I took this photo during field work as an undergraduate research assistant at the University of Massachusetts Boston.

I fell in love with wild lupin (Lupinus perennis) during one of my first research experiences as a college student. I was doing a summer fellowship with the National Science Foundation at the University of Massachusetts Boston, where I was working with a lab that studied marine ecology.

The lab was interested in tracking marine mussels, which are ecologically and economically important to the New England area, by comparing the chemistry of these animals’ shells to that of the water at different coastal sites. Our field work involved donning wet suits and driving a small motor boat into the ocean to collect water samples, and at times it was bitter work. Of course, I wasn’t yet a plant biologist back then – I was trying to explore my interests rather – but I still distinctly remember being cheered up by the sight of the beautiful blueish purple flowers of wild lupin that were in bloom at several of the sampling sites we visited. And now, after gaining some botanical knowledge through my current research, I learned that there is a lot more to appreciate about this native wildflower than just its beauty.  

Wild lupin has several special abilities that make it biologically interesting. For example, while it’s thought that wild lupin got its name from the Latin word for wolf (‘lupus’), because people perceived the plant’s ability to grow in poor conditions as a sign of predation, as if lupin was taking away nutrients from other plants, in reality wild lupin acts more like an ecological ally. Similar to the red clover plants I study, wild lupin actually enhances the quality of the soil it lives in by forming a symbiotic relationship with a particular kind of soil bacteria called rhizobia. In this relationship, rhizobia fix nitrogen, which is essential for plant growth, by transforming the nitrogen that’s present in the air into different forms like ammonia, nitrite and nitrate that plants can access and use to grow. This process of biological nitrogen fixation obviously benefits wild lupin directly and gives it a special advantage, but it also increases the local nitrogen content which benefits other plants.

Another interesting trait about wild lupin is its ability to ‘communicate’ with pollinators. Lupin produces a lot of protein-rich pollen that bees, especially bumblebees, are attracted to. However, if a wild lupin flower has already been visited by a bee, the center of the flower will change color from white to purple, and the bees have learned that this is a signal to avoid that flower. Basically, the flower is saying in a way: “don’t visit me, go find fresher flowers that have more pollen.” Overall, this adaptation benefits both the bee and the plant because the bee uses less energy in finding pollen and the plant increases the likelihood that its pollen gets spread around to make seeds.

As a college student trying to figure out her career path, I never would’ve guessed that the plant I stopped to admire and photograph during a summer internship would turn out to have such obvious connections to my future work studying biological nitrogen fixation and pollination ecology. What plants have you formed connections with at a young age?


“Plant database: Lupinus perennis.” Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center. 27 Sept. 2022.

Weiss, M. R. Ecological and evolutionary significance of floral color change. 1992. University of California at Berkley, PhD dissertation.

Northern catalpa

One of the things I love the most about my Pittsburgh apartment building is that it’s situated right next to a huge northern catalpa (Catalpa speciosa) tree. And as I live on the top floor, the tree’s leaves come right up close to the windows of my sun room, where I do most of my remote graduate work. For this reason, I’ve gotten to spent a lot of time with the tree over the years and seemed to have bonded with it. Many times, the tree has been the only being that was there with me when I would stay up ‘til the wee hours of the morning, intensely typing on my laptop to meet some deadline. Sometimes, I would subject the tree to listening to my ramblings as I practiced giving a seminar presentation, and, bless its heart, the tree never judged me for it. But most of all, I appreciate those times when I’d take a break from my studies to gaze at the tree through the window, and its beauty would somehow relax me and give me strength to keep going.

The northern catalpa tree outside of my apartment building in Pittsburgh.

The northern catalpa tree through the sun room window.

Because of my attachment to the northern catalpa, I pay special attention to its status throughout the year and have gotten to know a decent amount about its biology. Now that it’s finally spring, for instance, I’m delighted that the tree has recently gotten back some of its most beautiful and characteristic traits, such as its large, heart-shaped, bright green leaves and long, bean-like seed pods that hang all around its branches. Because of these ornamental properties, the northern catalpa is widely planted across the United States, where it is native (USDA, NRCS. 2022). Fittingly, the name catalpa actually comes from a Cherokee word meaning ‘bean tree,’ and as a researcher of plants in the bean family (Fabaceae or Leguminosae), the seed pods were of course the first thing that attracted my interest. In reality, however, this tree is not a legume. It belongs to the Bignoniaceae family, along with many other ornate species of large trees and flowering plants you may see planted around cities and gardens such as the blue jacaranda and wax begonia. Later in the spring, I look forward to when the tree will start making flowers. These will be pollinated by bees during the day and moths at night, and then will fall like autumn leaves to sprinkle the path up to my apartment building with little white spots.

Other Bignoniaceae species. Left: Blue Jacaranda (Photo Credit: SOPA Images/LightRocket/ Getty Images). Right: Wax Begonia (Photo Credit: Shutterstock/Christopher_PB).
Northern catalpa flowers. Photo credit: David D. Taylor 2013.

Admittedly, it wasn’t until I started studying plant biology in college that I truly started to pay attention to the plants around me. This lack of attention to plants actually has a name, it’s called ‘plant awareness disparity’ (PAD) and it’s pervasive in modern life, despite the fact that plants account for 80% of the world’s total biomass and we depend on them for our essential human needs such as oxygen, food, and medicine (Bar-On et al. 2018, Brownlee et al., 2021; Parsley 2020). A big consequence of PAD is that plant conservation receives less attention and funding (Balding and Williams 2016). By taking some time to notice of the flora around us, however, we can combat PAD and support plant life. The website Plant Love Stories ( is full of inspiring, everyday stories of human-plant relationships (see this compilation piece I helped write that features many excellent plant love stories from University of Pittsburgh undergraduate students).

Although I know it can be easy to think of plants as the scenery to the movie that is your life, I am sure everyone could identify a plant that has made some meaningful connection with them as the northern catalpa has done for me. What plant has impacted you?


Balding, M., & Williams, K. J. H. (2016). Plant blindness and the implications for plant conservation. Conservation Biology, 30(6), 1192–1199.

Bar-On, Y. M., Phillips, R., & Milo, R. (2018). The biomass distribution on Earth. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 115(25), 6506–6511.

Brownlee, K., Parsley, K., & Sabel, J. (2021). An Analysis of plant awareness disparity within introductory Biology textbook images. Journal of Biological Education,

Parsley, KM. (2020) Plant awareness disparity: A case for renaming plant blindness. Plants, People, Planet, 2, 598– 601.

USDA, NRCS. 2022. The PLANTS Database (, 05/21/2022).