Just recently, I spent several days in Hawai’i—my first ever visit to the 50th state—and spent most of my time on the Big Island, in and around the city of Hilo. As always, I was on the lookout for links to my main region of interest, the Southern Cone of South America, and that turned out to be an herb—not the notorious Maui Wowie, but rather products made from yerba mate, the tea-like infusion that’s a daily presence in Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay, and parts of Brazil and Chile.
|Yerba mate products on the shelves at Abundant Life Natural Foods, in Hilo|
When I shop at Berkeley Bowl, my go-to supermarket for a diversity of products from around the country and the world, I’m not surprised to see a display of yerba mate products, but I did not expect to see any such thing in Hilo, with only 50,000 inhabitants (though it’s Hawai’i’s second largest city after Honolulu). Nevertheless, there was an ample display of yerba items at the Abundant Life Natural Foods grocery on Avenue Kamehameha, in the historic business district, though I can’t recall seeing any packaged yerba for preparing mate in the traditional gourd.
|A yerba mate plantation in Misions Province, Argentina|
Only when I returned to the mainland did it occur to me that the local climate and conditions—hot and humid—resemble those of northeastern Argentina’s Misiones province, the source of most yerba that finds its way to markets here. In fact, Hawai’i’s native Ilex anomala is a close relative of South America’s Ilex paraguariensis, though the “Hawaiian holly” seems to be rarely cultivated.
|To the best of my knowledge, the only place to find yerba mate on Hawai'i's Big Island|
Yerba mate, however, can and does grow on the west side of the Big Island, at the Adaptations Inc Farm, not far from the resort town of Kailua-Kona. As it happens, though I never realized it, we had passed nearby when we spent last Thursday driving around the Big Island. Yesterday, when I inquired at the Adaptations Facebook page, they responded that “We have one pet tree for personal consumption.” Thus, I don’t expect to see Hawaiians walking around town sipping on their gourds any time soon.
|A symbolic gourd and bombilla (straw) outside the mate museum in the Buenos Aires suburb of Tigre|