Learning more about the story of guayusa

Our guayusa tea in a basket from the Amazon

You may or may not have noticed that once you scratch the surface, there does not seem to be a great deal of literature about the history or more traditional uses of guayusa.

Those of us who have tried it have our direct knowledge of drinking it and, for the writers of this page, feel the benefits of drinking guayusa as a healthy alternative to coffee.

There is also a substantial amount of information easily available online from trusted sources and authorities about the tea (e.g. Wikipedia, Runa).

We have looked a bit deeper and found some publications that delve further into guayusa's story.

Some of these publications were written as long ago as 1978 and the documents themselves pull together snippets of information about guayusa from many other significantly older writings.

We've unearthed some of these treasures in this blog and hope to continue it as a series.

So, where to begin? Well, one of the first interesting things we learned were some of the alternate spellings for guayusa.

Names and pronunciations for guayusa

The names listed below are vernacular names for the plants and we imagine these would have varied from region to region where it has been used for centuries in the Amazon.

The names are: aguayusa, huayusa, guanusa, guayusa and wayusa. Wikipedia says the Kichwa peoples say "Why-sa" and the Shuar people say "Why-ees".

These are names for both the tree and the delicious, energising drink that is made from the dried leaves.

The people of the Jivaro tribe, who inhabit areas around northern Peru and eastern Ecuador by the Maranon River, refer to the tree as 'weisa'.

In the now, nearly extinct Saparo (formerly Zaparo) language from the Ecuadorian borderlands, the guayusa tree is called 'kopiniak'. 

Apparently, there are only 4 remaining elder Saparoan people - all in their 70s - who can speak this ancient tongue fluently.

Recorded use of guayusa

In a letter dated 23 August 1683 to the Viceroy of Peru, a Jesuit called Juan Lorenzo Lucero told of an expedition into the region of the Jivaroan peoples. Lucero describes their use of guayusa:

"To maintain themselves at their best, they were accustomed to drink a decoction of an herb called guauysa, similar to Laurel, several times daily."

He goes on to say how, when fearing an attack from their enemies, drinking guayusa could enable the Jivaroans to stay awake for many nights, thus being better able to guard their encampments.

A later work penned in 1738 by another missionary, Father Pablo Maroni, describes how guayusa was used by himself and fellow missionaries for the relief of stomach problems:

"...our missionaries frequently use for this ailment the leaves of a plant called guayusa..."

"...with the decoction of these leaves taken daily with lemon or orange juice, the stomach is benefited, and the noxious effects of the excessive humidity of the forest are lessened."

We find it fascinating to read, in a work from 1738, of references to using guayusa with lemon - we often mix guayusa with lemon at home and can definitely report that the two flavours go together beautifully. 

In our 'decoction' we use lemon verbena and lemongrass to provide the lemon flavour. We have always found that guayusa is an excellent base/carrier for other flavours.

Incidentally, we have a great tasting flavour currently in development that we hope to get on the website soon - so do keep checking back or follow us on Twitter for when we announce its availability!

Guayusa as a source of revenue

Over time, we learned, that selling guayusa become a source of income for the Jesuit missionaries who, it is documented, sold the tea in Quito at 5 leaves for 'one half real'. 

The 'Real' is the currency that, we would guess, became the 'Brazillian Real' which is still used today. Nowadays in Ecuador the US Dollar is the primary form of currency.

Interestingly, the guayusa for sale on our website also departs Ecuador from Quito on its long journey to the United Kingdom.

It's fascinating to see how these original centres of trade persist. It's also amazing to think that this ancient brew is now finding its feet on new shores and starting to gain popularity. We are proud to be part of helping to carry guayusa across continents!

The Jesuits were expelled from the regions mentioned on this page around 1766-1768 by King Charles III.

It appears at this point, when the missions were abandoned, that guayusa fell into a state of disuse - or at least there was a gap in recordings of it being used.

In 1853, however, the Bishop of Cuenca, Manuel Plaza, reported that Jivaroan peoples were still cultivating guayusa near their houses.

We certainly enjoyed discovering all the rich info on this page, hope you enjoyed reading it, and have learned something new about this wonderful tree. Farewell for now and please check back in for more blogs soon, for we have more to tell!

Publications / websites cited in this blog include:

Wikiepedia (South American Currencies)
Wikipedia (Javaroan Peoples)
Compañía de Jesús, Quito
Guayusa, a neglected stimulant from the Andean foothills - Victor Manuel Patino


Linda Elliot
Linda Elliot

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