Ilex cassine is a heavily branched tree that grows up to 26 feet tall. The leaves are 2-4 inches long, thin, and tapered, with a shiny emerald green surface. The leaves are much thinner than those of the related Ilex vomitoria, and this is a good way to distinguish the two species. The fruits of I. cassine are round and bright rede. I. cassine prefers to grow beside swamps, rivers, and other bodies of water. It is primarily found near the coast in Virginia, Florida, and the Gulf Coast as far as Texas. There is also a variety that may be found in Mexico (Ratsch 1998, 285).
Seeds must be planted soon after being collected in warm, moist soil. They seem to thrive particularly well in a greenhouse environment. Once the seedlings have grown a good amount, they may be planted anytime, as long as they are not exposed to frost. I. cassine enjoys sandy or clay-filled soil and partial to full sun (Bowman 2012).
Many people are surprised to learn that some holly plants contain so much caffeine. In fact, many different species of Ilex contain caffeine and are used to create stimulating beverages wherever they grow, from North and South America to Tibet and China.
TRADITIONAL USES: Ilex cassine is sacred to the peoples of Florida and the East Coast of North America, and is used similarly to Ilex vomitoria to produce the black drink, a beverage that is high in caffeine and that often causes vomiting. Although it may seem strange to modern Western people, this vomiting is actually considered a desirable method of cleansing or purging negativity in order to prepare for contact with the spirit world (Ratsch 1998, 285). The ritual purging through entheogen use is actually fairly common in many indigenous cultures, and is especially well known among communities that work with ayahuasca.
The native peoples of the southeastern coastal United states use I. cassine to brew this black drink for use in ceremonies like The Green Corn Ceremony, which takes place in late summer to coincide with the ripening of the corn crops. These festivals are a time of cleansing and renewal, of removing old sins and pain and making space for the bounty of the earth. Thus, the black drink is taken in order to literally purge out old negative energy. In some tribes, only men are permitted to drink the black drink, perhaps because high quantities of caffeine can be dangerous for women who may be pregnant or trying to conceive. These tribes may also use the black drink in the training of medicine workers. (Ratsch 1998, 285).
The Apalachicola tribe of Florida prepare large quantities of I. cassine and place it in huge snail shells. These shells are then used as offerings in rituals, and the beverage is also consumed. The shells may be beautifully engraved with mystical images and divine figures. During celebratory rituals, a great deal of tobacco (Nicotiana rustica) is smoked alongside the I. cassine beverage, producing an intensely euphoric, stimulating effect (Moore 1921).
The leaves of I. cassine and I. vomitoria have been smoked as tobacco substitutes by native tribes and settlers, and were also used as tea substitutes by southern rebel troops during the American Civil War. The use of I. cassine leaves to prepare caffeinated tea is actually coming back in to style in the areas where the plant grows wild, and if the beverage is not brewed too long, one can enjoy the flavor, stimulating effects, and health benefits without going through a ritual purging (Deane n.d.).
TRADITIONAL PREPARATION: In order to prepare the black drink, fresh I. cassine leaves are boiled in water for 10 minutes or more. For a much more potent preparation, the leaves are roasted, then boiled in water for 30 minutes or more. During this period, it must be stirred vigorously so that it becomes foamy. Some have compared the taste of the black drink to that of oolong tea (Camellia sinensis). The red berries of I. cassine are toxic and must never been eaten (Ratsch 1998, 285).
A mild preparation of the black drink is suitable for mild stimulation and will not cause purging in most individuals. Therefore, it is the more potent form that is used for ritual purposes. At times, other herbs may be added to the beverage to change or enhance the effects – for example, other plants that cause purging, such as Lobelia inflata, may be added. This creates violent vomiting, a ritual purification that is considered essential in certain rituals and practices. The beverage may also be fermented to create a brew that is both stimulating and inebriating. At times, Tobacco (Nicotiana tabacum) may be added to this fermented drink (Ratsch 1998, 285). This blend is both a CNS depressant and a stimulant, and must be consumed with respect and care.
Tea made from I. cassine is very high in antioxidants and is free of tannins, meaning it lacks the bitter taste found in strong black teas but still has many health benefits. According to the Yaupon, the best Ilex tea is made using an equal proportion of chopped, dry and roasted leaves and dried, steamed green leaves (Deane n.d.).
MEDICINAL USE: I. cassine preparations are used as emetics and for spiritual purification by many indigenous American groups, including the Cherokee, the Alabama Creek, and the Natchez. I. cassine is also said to heal urinary tract issues (Ratsch 1998, 286).
TRADITIONAL EFFECTS: The leaves of I. cassine contain 0.27 to 0.32% of a stimulating substance that has generally been identified as caffeine, as well as a tanning agent. Recent data suggests that this stimulating alkaloid is not caffeine, but rather Theobromine, one of the major active alkaloids in chocolate (Theobroma cacao) (Alikaridis 1987).
Since I. cassine has a high caffeine content, the black drink is very stimulating and makes a potent emetic and diuretic. Strong brews usually cause vomiting, intense sweating (also thought to be purifying), and out-of-body trance experiences. The fermented black drink is both intoxicating and stimulating, and therefore does not carry the soporific effects of most fermented drinks. When other herbs, such as Lobelia inflata, are added to the black drink, it becomes much more potently psychoactive (Ratsch 1998, 287).
Alikaridis, F. “Natural Constituents of Ilex Species.” Journal of Ethnopharmacology 20 (1987): 121–124.
Bowman, C. “How to Grow Dahoon Holly (Ilex Cassine).” Life 123, n.d. http://www.life123.com/home-garden/plant-guides/holly/ilex-cassine.shtml.
Deane, G. “Hollies: Caffein & Antioxidants.” Eat The Weeds, n.d. http://www.eattheweeds.com/hollies-caffein-antioxidants/.
Moore, C.B. “Notes on Shell Implements from Florida.” American Anthropologist 23 (1921): 12–18.
Ratsch, Christian., The Encyclopedia of Psychoactive Plants: Ethnopharmacology and its Applications. Rochester: Park Street Press, 1998.
Voogelbreinder, Snu, Garden of Eden: The Shamanic Use of Psychoactive Flora and Fauna, and the Study of Consciousness. Snu Voogelbreinder, 2009.