Sandy’s Garden ... Paraguay Tea

Sandy Simpson
Sandy Simpson

‘Char from the island (8,3)’ was the crossword clue.

Well, char has a number of meanings. It is a verb meaning ‘to scorch’; it can be a noun meaning an ‘odd job’ or ‘a household task’; by extension, it can mean ‘to do household cleaning’ or, ‘a charwoman’; then again, char can be ‘a small fish of the salmon family,’ ‘a newly-formed island’, or ‘the Cockney spelling of cha, meaning tea’. By solving the interconnected clues, I discovered that the answer was ‘-a-a-u-y --a’. The second word is now obviously ‘tea’. And what can the first word be other than ‘Paraguay’. Now, I have heard of Indian tea, Ceylon tea or China tea: but Paraguay tea?

And yes, there is a drink called Paraguay tea. That wonderful tome, A Modern Herbal by Mrs. Margaret Grieve, first published in 1931, tells me that the large leaves of the shrub Ilex Paraguayensis … otherwise known, amongst many other names, as Paraguay herb, maté, Ilex maté, Yerba maté, houx maté, Jesuit’s tea, Brazil tea or gón gouha … are used in an infusion called Paraguay tea, which is drunk in vast quantities in South America, where it is taken at any time during the day. The manner of its drinking is somewhat unexpected to the tea-cup users of the United Kingdom, for Paraguay tea is best sucked from a common cup … called a bombilla … through a silver tube with a bulbous strainer on the tea-gathering end. Apparently, the drinkers share the drinking tube and the bombilla, though not its contents.

After the first person to drink has emptied the bombilla, it is refilled for the next drinker. And yes, Paraguay tea is usually taken with relatives or friends, the drinkers sitting round in a social circle which embodies a sense of belonging to a communal group.

The shrub whose leaves are used in Paraguay tea … Ilex Paraguayensis … is attracting increasing attention from researchers eager to discover if its reputation for offering benefits in the treatment of certain human conditions is justified. Mrs. Grieve reported, under the heading Medicinal Action and Uses, that the tea was ‘a tonic, diuretic, diaphoretic, and powerful stimulant. In large doses it causes purging and even vomiting.’ We know that maté … the most widely-used name for the shrub … contains caffeine and other chemicals which stimulate the brain, the heart, the muscles lining blood vessels and other parts of the body. And we know, of course, that caffeine is the constituent part of coffee and tea which acts a stimulant – in other words, why we drink coffee to get ourselves up and going in the morning or when we are tired and want a non-alcoholic pick-me-up.

Some herbalists suggest that maté can be used as a stimulant to relieve mental and physical fatigue and chronic fatigue; it has also been suggested that maté may be useful in the treatment of heart-related complaints like irregular heartbeat and low blood pressure; and there are those who swear by maté to ease depression, to relieve headache and joint pains, to assist in weight loss and as a laxative. I can understand why it might help with weight loss, for Paraguay tea is very sustaining; and it is alleged that natives of South America sometimes travel for several days with no refreshment other than this drink – and one would surely lose weight doing that! I must, however, caution that reporting these alleged benefits is in no way to be considered an endorsement of the claims; and I must urge you, gentle reader, not to experiment in this field unless you are fully competent to do so.

Still, Paraguay tea is, I read, finding popularity in the United States as an alternative to coffee, although reportedly less appealing to the taste buds; and it may be that we shall not have too long to wait before we have the first opportunity to try it for ourselves.