If there is one universal human addiction it would probably be caffeine. From the first coffee enjoyed in Africa to the intricate tea ceremonies of Asia, we love our hot morning caffeine fix. In South America, it is the holly tree that provides that buzz.
In southern regions of the continent, yerba mate is the caffeine drink of choice made from a holly tree by the name of Ilex Paraguariensis.
In the Amazon, a cousin of yerba mate, the Ilex Guayusa holly tree has been cultivated for its caffeinated leaves by indigenous people for at least a thousand years.
Guayusa, while not actually a tea, is prepared in a similar way by allowing fresh or dried leaves to seep in hot water.
It is most commonly found in Ecuador and is grown and consumed as a major part of the native Jivaro and Kichwa cultures.
There are great stories and legends about guayusa and it is believed by some tribes to give one the ability to dream.
In many villages, guayusa is prepared over a central fire in the early morning hours and members of the community will enjoy the drink together while discussing the dreams they had the night before.
Another traditional use of guayusa is as a stimulant before a nighttime hunt. Nicknamed the “night watchman,” guayusa helps hunters sharpen their mind and keeps them wide awake through a long hunt.
In addition to caffeine, guayusa leaves are also high in antioxidants and don’t have as much tannins as tea leaves, making it less bitter than green or black tea.
Guayusa trees are generally grown by native communities in sustainable agroforestry plots of land where a wide mix of native crops, from cassava to cacao to medicinal herbs, are grown together.
It is a healthy and balanced way to farm in the Amazon and does not have the same destructive aspects as the industrialized farming found in huge slash and burn operations.
A unique aspect of the guayusa industry is how it has so far been exported from the Amazon.
Unheard of even a few years ago, guayusa has begun gaining an audience in North America and Europe as a new caffeine option.
The market is dominated by just a few companies and as an industry, it represents how to ethically and sustainably export native ingredients from the Amazon jungle.
Runa, the major company marketing guayusa in the United States, does not just support fair pay or sustainable harvesting but actively supports local native farmers, their communities, and even the heritage and history behind the guayusa tree.
A good deal of the information we have on the history and customs of guayusa comes from research carried out by the company and their sister-nonprofit, the Runa Foundation.
As more and more consumers understand the value in supporting fair trade organizations, we can begin to go beyond this to demand even better practices from the companies we support.
Not just in the business of marking a profit, plenty of companies can use their connections and access to support the preservation of not just indigenous ingredients but also culinary traditions, legends, and heritage.
In Kichwa and Jivaro tribes, the art and customs around growing and consuming guayusa are no longer at risk of dying off but rather are now being celebrated.
Guayusa is the lifeblood of many families and the skills and knowledge of guayusa farming is now an asset to the community.
It does not always have to be a matter of taking what the Amazon has to offer but instead working in harmony to both help financially support communities and honor their traditions and heritage.
Amazon Guayusa Tea
Guayusa tea offers a perfect caffeine treat but also a nice mix of antioxidants and polyphenols
1 tablespoon (2g) guayusa tea
1 cup (237ml) water
Boil water and add the guayusa tea.
Brew for 4-6 minutes.
Strain the tea or enjoy with a mate straw.