The yerba mate plant, which is really a tree, is an evergreen from the Holly family that grows in the subtropical forests of South America. The yerba mate tree, from the Aquifoliacae family, stands between 6 to 8 meters tall, being able to reach even 15 meters. There are many different species in the family, the Ilex gender having more than 550, the holly plant included, 280 species found in South America, 60 of which occur in southern Brazil. Only 3 species though are used in the mate industry (I. paraguariensis, I. angustifolia, I. amara), Ilex Paraguariensis being the most important. The mate plant, due to the widespread genetic variety of the Ilex family, may have white or light purple stems, and thick waxy leaves that may present dented or smooth edges.
The amount of xanthene alkaloids in the leaves of maté is believed to be directly related to the quality of the soil. This influences the flavor of the yerba mate giving it a milder taste. This flavor varies from region to region, the soil of southern Brazil presenting drastic variations in mineral content, texture, and organic mass. The tendency though, is for the cultivated maté to have a stronger bitterness, and probably higher xanthene content. The native trees, which grow in the nitrogen-rich topsoil of the Paraná Pine forests, tend to have a milder bitterness, characterized by a stronger leafy flavor. Obtaining the right balance of these is the secret to having a stable, fresh tasting yerba mate.
Size and Shape of the Trees and Leaves
The factor that characterizes the size and shape of the yerba mate trees is the amount of sunlight received. In the dense subtropical forest, the fight for sunlight has developed the trees so that they have long slender trunks with a large leafy top. This applies to the native yerba mate trees, which develop a longer trunk, reaching 45 feet tall to reach the sunlight. The cultivated trees are pruned to spread, creating large bushes, which rarely develop large trunks. They are carefully harvested each season to maintain the bush-like shape which eases the labor in harvesting.
The leaves also present a difference in size and shape. The native leaves are usually smaller and darker in color. The cultivated leaves are larger, and occasionally, the serrated edge of the leaf becomes less evident.
One of the obstacles faced by cultivated yerba mate is the weeds. The use of herbicides is widespread in cultivated areas, therefore posing threats to the natural balance of the subtropical forests and grasslands. For this reason, we have also chosen yerba mate plantations that are surrounded by native forest. This avoids all possibility of contamination. The International Organic Regulations are followed in all of our certified plantations.
Native yerba mate doesn’t face the same challenge, as the weeds do not grow in the dense forest. Most native yerba mate is, by default, organic. We have all our native yerba mate areas certified though, and conduct extraction in a manner that doesn’t damage the other vegetation in the forest.