Ilex guayusa

Ilex guayusa (/ˈlɛks ˈɡwjuːsə/ or /ˈlɛks ˈwjuːsə/) is a species of tree of the holly genus, native to the Amazon Rainforest. One of four known caffeinated holly trees, the leaves of the guayusa tree are harvested fresh and brewed like a tea for their stimulative effects.[1]

Ilex guayusa
Scientific classification
Kingdom: Plantae
Clade: Tracheophytes
Clade: Angiosperms
Clade: Eudicots
Clade: Asterids
Order: Aquifoliales
Family: Aquifoliaceae
Genus: Ilex
I. guayusa
Binomial name
Ilex guayusa


Ilex guayusa is an evergreen dioecious[2] tree which grows 6–30 m (20–98 ft) tall.[3] The leaves are ovate, elliptic, oblong or lanceolate; 7–22 cm (2.8–8.7 in) long, 2.5–7 cm (0.98–2.76 in) wide; with serrate or dentate margin.[3] The flowers are small and white, arranged in thyrses.[3] The fruit is spherical and red, 6–7 mm (0.24–0.28 in) in diameter.[3]

Distribution and habitat

I. guayusa is native to the upper Amazonian regions of Ecuador, Peru, and southern Colombia, between 200–2,000 m (660–6,560 ft) of elevation.[3] However, it has also been collected in Bolivia in 1939.[4] It is present in evergreen or deciduous premontane forests, especially ones dominated by Dictyocaryum palms.[3] Guayusa has been collected only rarely in the wild by botanists and is known almost exclusively as a cultivated plant (especially in the Ecuadorian provinces of Napo and Pastaza).[5]


Photo of cultivated Ilex guayusa treelet

This species is found wild and cultivated in sandy-loamy soils of pH 4.34–5.01 with low cation-exchange capacity and high metal content. The vegetation type preferred is lowland and premontane, neotropical jungle where conditions of soil, precipitation and humidity are appropriate for its development. Despite being a monoecious species and prone to floral polygamy, Ilex guayusa appears to yield little fertile material, so it relies mostly on asexual reproduction (basal shoots, sprouts and suckers). In its initial growth stages, Ilex guayusa behaves as an understory species, becoming a shrub with spreading branches when it receives higher amounts of light, eventually becoming a tree.


The earliest evidence of human utilization of this species is a 1,500-year-old bundle of guayusa leaves found in a medicine man's tomb in the Bolivian Andes, far beyond the natural range of the plant.[4]

Father Juan Lorenzo Lucero reported in 1683 the daily consumption of guayusa in infusions by the Jivaroan peoples.[6]

In the 18th century, several missionaries in Colombia, Ecuador and Peru wrote about the uses of the plant, and some of them also consumed the infusion citing digestive and stimulant properties.[6]

The Jesuits knew about the medicinal uses of the plant and traded it actively.[7]

A grove found in 1857 by Richard Spruce near the town of Baños, Ecuador was supposedly cultivated since precolumbian times.[5]

Vernacular names

Spanish: guayusa[3][8]

Kichwa: waisa[3][8]

Shuar: wayus, wais[8]

Leaves of Ilex guayusa


Leaves of Ilex guayusa are used to make an infusion, especially in Ecuador, Peru and Colombia.[3][5][7][8] After harvest, leaves are dried, which allows flavor to develop.[5]

Jivaroan peoples in Ecuador and Peru also prepare a drink from the leaves to be drunk in large amounts during pre-dawn ceremonies that involve the vomiting of the excess drink to wash out the stomach and small intestine and avoid absorbing too much caffeine.[3][5] A ritual use by the Quechua people involves drinking guayusa infusion to have foretelling dreams for successful hunting expeditions.[9]

Guayusa is also consumed at parties and local festivals as a social drink, especially by the Kichua people in Ecuador.[7]

In the three aforementioned countries, guayusa is used in the preparation of artisanal alcoholic drinks.[7]

Chemical composition

Dried leaves of Ilex guayusa.

Guayusa leaves contain caffeine (1.73–3.48 %), theobromine and other dimethylxanthines (among them paraxanthine and theophylline).[5] Guayusa leaves also contain L-theanine, gallic acid, guanidine, isobutyric acid, nicotinic acid, ascorbic acid, riboflavin, choline, pyridoxine, triterpenes, chlorogenic acid and sugars among other compounds.

See also

  • Yerba mate (Ilex paraguariensis) - South American caffeinated holly species used to make Mate.
  • Yaupon holly (Ilex vomitoria) - southeastern North American caffeinated holly species used to make the Black Drink.
  • Kuding (Ilex kudingcha) - Asian holly species used with Ligustrum robustum for Chinese kǔdīng chá tea.


  1. "Ecuador's "Superleaf" Tea: Could It Replace Your Afternoon Coffee?". 2014-07-04.
  2. Shemluck, Melvin (1979). "The flowers of Ilex guayusa" (PDF). Botanical Museum Leaflets. Harvard University Herbaria. 27 (5/6): 155–160. doi:10.5962/p.295225. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2016-10-06. Retrieved 2016-03-12.
  3. Loizeau P.-A.; G. Barriera (2007). "Aquifoliaceae of Neotropics Ilex guayusa Loes". Monographia Aquifoliacearum. Retrieved 2 August 2011.
  4. Schultes, R. E. (1972). "Ilex guayusa from 500 AD to the present". In Wassén, H.; et al. (eds.). A Medicine-Man's Implements and Plants in a Tiahuanacoid Tomb in Highland Bolivia. Etnologiska Studier. Vol. 32. Goteborgs Etnografiska Museum.
  5. Lewis, WH; Kennelly, EJ; Bass, GN; Wedner, HJ; Elvin, L (1991). "Ritualistic use of the holly Ilex guayusa by Amazonian Jivaro Indians". Journal of Ethnopharmacology. 33 (1–2): 25–30. doi:10.1016/0378-8741(91)90156-8. PMID 1682531.
  6. Patino, Victor Manuel (1968). "Guayusa, a neglected stimulant from the eastern andean foothills". Economic Botany. 22 (4): 311–316. doi:10.1007/bf02908125. ISSN 0013-0001. S2CID 35093551.
  7. Duenas, Juan; et al. (2016). "Amazonian Guayusa (Ilex guayusa Loes.): A Historical and Ethnobotanical Overview". Economic Botany. 70 (1): 85–91. doi:10.1007/s12231-016-9334-2. S2CID 18354079.
  8. "Guayusa - Patrimonio Alimentario". (in Spanish). Retrieved 2017-07-14.
  9. Spruce, R. (1996). Notas de un botánico en el Amazonas y los Andes. Quito, Ecuador: Colección Tierra Incógnita.
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