Maté (ilex paraguariensis)

A member of the holly family found in subtropical South America, maté is a caffeine-containing evergreen shrub or small tree used most commonly to produce the slightly bitter tea of the same name. After the leathery leaves are harvested, they are heated, ground, and then stored in sacks for approximately 1 year before being used to make the beverage.

More than 300 years ago, indigenous people taught Jesuit missionaries about the stimulant properties of this tea, and the missionaries then introduced maté tea to European colonists in Brazil, Paraguay, Argentina, and elsewhere. The Jesuits named the herb from the Spanish word for “gourd,” a reference to the gourds from which the South American indigenous people drank their tea.

In parts of South America, people still drink maté from a small gourd (cuia), using a straw (bombilla). Those who enjoy maté sip their beverage throughout the day, reusing the ground leaves and refilling the gourd with hot water.


Plant profile

Common Names: Maté, Paraguay Tea, Yerba Maté

Description: Evergreen shrub or small tree, 15 to 50 feet tall; oval, leathery leaves with serrated edges; small, greenish white, four-petaled flowers and red berries

Hardiness: To Zone 9

Family: Aquifoliaceae

Flowering: Late winter to early spring

Parts Used: Leaves

Range/Habitat: Native to South America; grows wild near streams

Culinary use

Maté is so popular in South America that more than 200 brands of the tea are sold in Argentina alone. Maté is usually enjoyed plain, although milk, lemon, or sugar are sometimes added for flavor. A cup of maté contains about half as much caffeine as a cup of brewed coffee; it also contains vitamins A and C, along with minerals, including iron, calcium, potassium, and zinc. In South America, the herb is used to flavor foods ranging from bread to soft drinks.

Medicinal use

In addition to caffeine, maté contains astringent and antiseptic tannins similar to those in green tea (Camellia sinensis). The herb stimulates the nervous system, relieving mental and physical fatigue, and it has diuretic and anti-inflammatory properties. In South America, maté is taken as an appetite suppressant and used to relieve mild depression, nervous tension, migraine headaches, and joint pain.

How to grow it

Maté thrives in moist, well-drained soil in full sun or partial shade; it requires a minimum temperature of 20°F. As a houseplant, it will reach a mature height of 2 to 4 feet. For best growth indoors, provide full sun and a minimum temperature of 50°F. Harvest the leaves when the berries ripen to red. Propagate from seed or semiripe cuttings.