On this blustery overcast late autumn day John and George walking Seabranch State Park felt the chilly ghost of Jonathan Dickinson pass by retracing his shipwrecked footsteps near were we were today, and at nearly the same season.
We enjoyed our field trip, but Jonathan Dickinson, not so much. As we arrive at Thanksgiving, contemplate JD’s heartfelt thanks for escaping Florida in 1699:
“God’s protecting Providence, man’s surest help and defense in the times of the greatest difficulty and most imminent danger, evidenced in the remarkable deliverance of diverse persons from the devouring waves of the sea, amongst which they suffered shipwreck. And also from the more cruelly devouring jaws of the inhumane cannibals of Florida. Faithfully related by one of the persons concerned therein, Jonathan Dickinson.”
I wonder if Jonathan Dickinson at any point had a few moments to enjoy the beautiful plants of what is now Seabranch State Park. If he’d not been starving, fearing for the life of his family and companions, freezing, and threatened by murder, Jonathan might’ve had a chance to enjoy the golden asters, palafox, and blue curls. He did come across one of the more beautiful autumn species, magnificent for its red berries, Dahoon Holly, Ilex cassine. JD encountered it as the tea known as black drink.
Bear with me through another long quote from Jonathan Dickinson. It is worth it:
“In one part of this house where the fire was kept choose one, was an Indian man, having a pot on the fire wherein he was making a drink of the leaves of a shrub which we understood afterwards by the Spaniard is called caseena, boiling the said leaves, after they had parched them in a pot; then with a gourd having a long neck and at the top of that a small hole which the top of one’s finger could cover, and at the side of it a round hole of 2 inches diameter, they take the liquor out of the pot and put it into a deep brown bowl, which being almost filled containeth nigh 3 gallons. With this gourd they brew the liquor and make it froth very much. It looks of a deep brown color. In the brewing of this liquor was this noise made which we thought strange; for the pressing of this gourd gently down into the liquor, and the air which it contained being forced out of the little hole at the top occasion to sound; and according to the time and motion given would be various. This drink when made, and cooked to sup, was in a conch shell first carried to the Cacique, who threw part of it on the ground, and the rest he drank up, and then would make a loud he-m; and afterwards the cup passed of the rest of the Cacique’s associates…”
(There is some disagreement and confusion in the historical literature as to the relative importance of Dahoon Holly as opposed to Yaupon Holly in preparation of the black drink. Both species apparently were in the brew. Without much evidence I suspect JD’s quote to refer to Dahoon Holly. Its species name cassine is a historical term for the black drink. The species name for Yaupon Holly, vomitoria, likewise refers to the black drink which caused vomitoria after indulgence.)
Dahoon Holly is one of multiple Holly species native to Florida, the other locally abundant native Holly being Gallberry. Gallberry is a small shrub, whereas Dahoon Holly can range from a good-sized shrub to a tree, generally in wet habitats. The light-toned bark is often decorated with red lichens. The tiny springtime flowers are white. The trees are usually described as having separate male and female individuals, although I don’t think this is strictly true.
On the female trees in season the red berries can be as eye-catching as a fire truck.
Let’s return to making tea from Hollys. Beyond coffee and grocery store Tea, how many plants provide caffeinated beverages? Holly’s are one. In Asia, South America (yerba mate), and in the Southeastern United States multiple Holly yield caffeinated teas. There’s more than one bioactive compound in Holly preparations, and everything is not necessarily safe to drink. You have theobromine, an alkaloid occurring also in cacao. More ominously to the tea-sipper, reports of preparing the black drink, including the one given above, mention whipping it into a froth. That’s a hint of compounds called saponins, which lather in water, kill fish, and are variably toxic to humans. Among the old reports of Dahoon Holly’s use in making the black drink, are also reports of applications as soap.
This post is getting a little long so let me finish it up quickly with an unrelated item potentially of interest to some readers, who may notice it on their own. A lot of Hollys, as well as several species unrelated to Hollys, develop galls and growth deformities from a fungus known as Sphaeropsis tumefaciens. Dahoon Holly is particularly susceptible to this pest. The fungus causes knots and swellings on the young branches, and more conspicuously, witch’s brooms, these being dense tufts of young branches rising from the same point.
To sum it all up, some of us may give thanks for a chance to escape Florida cannibals, some may feel gratitude for teas, some may like Holly Berries, others may prefer Halle Berry, but we give thanks for the beauty, intricacy, and serenity of nature our gift from Providence to enjoy.
(Yes, JD went on to become Mayor of Philadelphia.)