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Ilex paraguariensis (PROSEA)

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Plant Resources of South-East Asia
List of species

Ilex paraguariensis A. St.-Hil.

Protologue: Mém. Mus. Hist. nat., Paris 9: 351 (1822).
Family: Aquifoliaceae
Chromosome number: 2n= 40


Ilex mate A. St.-Hil. (1824), I. paraguensis D. Don (1824), I. domestica Reissek (1861).

Vernacular names

  • Maté, Brazilian tea, Paraguay tea (En). Maté, thé du Paraguay, thé des jésuites (Fr). Yerba mate, té de los jesuitas (Sp).

Origin and geographic distribution

I. paraguariensis is of South-American origin and is indigenous to the forest regions drained by the upper Paraná, Paraguay and Uruguay rivers in Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay. The preparation of a beverage from the leaves of wild I. paraguariensis and related species must have been an ancient custom, but under the influence of Spanish missionaries local people started to cultivate maté for economic production after 1670. At present, maté exceeds tea ( Camellia sinensis (L.) Kuntze) in popularity in South America. Large quantities of maté are produced in plantations in southern Brazil, north-eastern Argentina and in Paraguay. So-called "native maté" is still collected to some extent from the wild in the forests of southern Brazil.


The leaves of I. paraguariensis are the source of the well-known beverage maté, obtained by infusing the dried leaves and twigs in hot water, just like tea. The beverage, called "mate cimarrón" is light green, has a pleasant aroma and a slightly bitter taste. Sugar and lemon are often added to adjust its taste. A cold maté beverage ("tereré") is very common in Paraguay and north-eastern Argentina. Maté is also used medicinally as a diuretic, depurative, and a general tonic to relieve mental and physical fatigue. In Europe, maté is used to achieve weight loss, as it reduces appetite. Maté extracts are also used to flavour other products like liqueurs, ice-creams, desserts, and in perfumery to introduce a pronounced greenness in floral bouquets.

Production and international trade

Annual world production of processed maté leaves averaged 450 000 t from 0.5 million ha over 1994-1997. Argentina is the largest producer (45% of world total) followed by Brazil (35%) and Paraguay (15%). About 15-20% of their production is exported to other Latin American countries, in particular to Chile and Uruguay, and to the United States, Japan, Europe (Spain, Italy, Germany) and the Middle East (Syria). The maté industry in Argentina alone represents a value of about US$ 500 million.


The composition of commercial maté leaves varies widely. About 35-50% of the components are extractable in water. Per 100 g commercial maté leaves contain 0.6-1.6 g caffeine. Other constituents include: water 7-10 g, protein 10 g, fat 3-7 g, carbohydrates 7-11 g, fibre 14 g, ash 5-7 g (P 0.11%, Ca 0.68%, Mg 0.39%, K 1.34%), tannin 7-11 g, essential oil 0.08 g, carotene 1.17 mg, thiamine 215μg, riboflavin 422μg, nicotinic acid 6.9 mg and ascorbic acid 11.5 mg. Besides caffeine, maté also contains small amounts of theobromine, theophylline, vanillin, chlorogenic acid, citric acid, malic acid and saponins. In addition, maté is a rich source of minerals and contains 15 amino acids. The aroma and flavour of maté depend on the time of collection of branches, and maximum aroma is obtained when harvestable trees bear nearly ripe fruits. The flavour is retained even when maté is exposed to the atmosphere.

The 1000-seed weight is about 7.5 g.

Adulterations and substitutes

Ilex cognata Reissek is a poorly known wild relative of maté, occurring very locally in the same area of distribution as I. paraguariensis . It is called "cha do mato" and is used to adulterate maté. Other wild Ilex species sympatric with I. paraguariensis have sometimes also been used to adulterate maté.


An evergreen, dioecious shrub or tree, up to 18 m tall in the wild state, in cultivation pruned to a 3-6 m tall multi-stemmed and highly branched bush. Leaves alternate, coriaceous; petiole 1 cm long; blade obovate, 10-12 cm × 5-6 cm, tapering towards the base, with serrate margin and obtuse apex, dark green and glabrous. Inflorescence an axillary, corymboid fascicle with 3-11 male or 1-3 female flowers; flowers small, pedicellate, with 4-lobed persistent calyx and 4 white petals; 4 stamens in male flower; pistil in female flower superior, ovary 4-locular with 1-2 ovules per cell. Fruit a reddish to blackish, globular drupe, 0.5-0.8 cm in diameter, with 4 pyrenes, each containing one seed. Seedling with epigeal germination.

Growth and development

Seeds (pyrenes) of maté remain viable very briefly and should therefore be sown soon after harvesting. Germination takes a long time and the germination rate is generally below 50%. Seed stored at 5°C for 11 months showed only 2-7% germination. Flowering starts 3-4 years after germination and occurs in South America in October-November. Pollination is by insects and fruits mature in 5-6 months. Seeds are dispersed by birds feeding on the red fruits. Cultivated trees reach full productivity at about 10 years, and the economic lifetime of a well-maintained maté plantation is 20-30 years.

Other botanical information

I. paraguariensis is a variable species and in the past many varieties have been distinguished based on different leaf forms. At present, 2 botanical varieties of I. paraguariensis are distinguished, mainly based on hairiness, both co-occurring in limited areas in Brazil:

  • var. paraguariensis : almost completely glabrous; cultivated;
  • var. vestita (Reissek) Loes.: densely pubescent; not suitable for cultivation, but sometimes collected.

Ilex kudingcha C.-J. Tseng from northern Vietnam and southern China has been used to prepare "Kuding tea". It has gained interest, and its properties and propagation are currently being investigated.


Maté grows naturally in humid forests, preferably near streams, under subtropical conditions, between 18S and 25S latitudes, but has been cultivated as far south as 30S. It requires at least 1200 mm of well-distributed rainfall per year with 250 mm during the driest season. The main limiting factor in its natural distribution is water shortage. The mean annual temperature in the maté region is 21-22°C. Established trees tolerate temperatures as low as -6°C and also snow, and temperatures as high as 40°C or more. Maté grows well on slightly acid (pH 5.8-6.8), medium- to fine-textured oxisols. Maté does not tolerate lime-rich soils or waterlogging.

Propagation and planting

Maté is usually propagated by seed. In South America the fruits are harvested from February-April. Poor storability and low germination rates are likely to have been important factors in restricting maté cultivation beyond the limits of its main areas of origin in South America. Propagation by grafting, cuttings and layering is possible, but not much practised. Cuttings from young branches do not root easily. In vitro cultivation of maté is in an experimental stage in Brazil and Argentina, and may be promising. Planting densities vary from 1000-4000 plants/ha, but are lower in semi-natural cultivation.


In general 3 systems of maté cultivation can be distinguished:

  • Collecting from natural maté vegetation. Cultivation practices are few and harvesting is manual. It is common in Brazil.
  • Enrichment planting. This involves supplementing natural maté populations by interplanting and by replacing of dead maté trees. This is called "densifying the maté plantation" and is the most common method applied in Brazil.
  • Establishing maté plantations. This system came into general use in Argentina around 1915. High yields are obtained as a result of improved cultural practices such as weed and pest control, application of fertilizers and mechanization. Young trees are pruned annually up to the third or fourth year to maintain a proper shape and height of 3-6 m. Weed control is usually carried out mechanically, but sometimes herbicides are applied as well.

Diseases and pests

Damping-off disease caused by Fusarium , Rhizoctonia and Alternaria spp. is a serious problem in maté seedlings and can be prevented by the application of fungicides. In plantations, maté can be severely damaged by a number of insect pests. The "psilido" ( Methaphalara spegazziniana ) lays eggs inside the buds and causes deformation of the leaves. The "acaro del bronceado" ( Dichopelmus notus ) induces abundant leaf fall. Other pests are the beetle Hedipathes betulinus , the moth Perigonia lusca and the wax scale Ceroplastes grandis (Homoptera).

Wherever economically feasible, chemical control methods are used. However, "organic" maté cultivation has been successful at Misiones in north-eastern Argentina.


Maté is harvested by cutting large branches from the trees with a machete or other tools. Harvesting may be done every one, two or three years. Mechanized harvesting is applied only in a few large plantations. In Argentina, the traditional harvesting time for maté extends from April to July. In Brazil wild maté trees are usually allowed to recover for about 3 years.


Maté yields vary strongly with the system of cultivation and plant density. At 1000-1500 plants/ha, annual yields of 1000-1800 kg/ha of dried leaves can be obtained. At 2500-4000 plants/ha, annual yields increase to 2100-3300 kg/ha.

Handling after harvest

The branches with green leaves of maté are brought to central places, where for 30-90 seconds they are passed through a rotatory furnace at flame temperatures of 250°C. This process preserves the green colour of the leaves and reduces their moisture content to 25%. A second drying is needed to reduce the moisture content to about 3%, and can be achieved either quickly in 15-60 minutes, or more slowly (12-24 hours). Drying is followed by a coarse grinding process. The product is then usually stored for a few months, which improves the aroma and flavour. Subsequently, the raw material is cleaned, ground, and the leaves are separated from the twigs and branches by sieving. The different fractions are collected and stored, and later on mixed in maté mills to obtain the desired blends. The final products are sold in tins. In southern South America, maté is a common product, like tea or coffee, and it is sold in grocery shops, markets and supermarkets. In other parts of the world, however, it is only found in health and herbal shops.

Genetic resources and breeding

I. paraguariensis is at risk due to the gradual disappearance of its natural forest habitat in South America. Clonal gardens and seed-propagated germplasm collections have been maintained since 1974 by the "Instituto Nacional de Tecnología Agropecuaria" (INTA) at Misiones, Argentina. Some selection work is in progress based on comparative field trials, and INTA has been distributing clonal seed, and to a lesser extent also clones of high-yielding genotypes. A modest selection programme for maté types with low or no caffeine content is under way.


Maté is an interesting tree crop and product. It seems worthwhile to investigate the prospects for a market and possibilities of maté cultivation in South-East Asia. Some attempts were made in the past in Malaysia.


  • Alikaridis, F., 1987. Natural constituents of Ilex species. Journal of Ethnopharmacology 20(2): 121-144.
  • Belingheri, L.D. & Mayol, R.M. (Editors), 1996. Tercer curso de capacitación en producción de yerba mate [Third training course on the production of maté]. Estación Experimental Agropecuaria Cerro Azul, Instituto Nacional de Tecnología Agropecuaria, Misiones, Argentina. 239 pp.
  • Giberti, G.C., 1994. Maté (Ilex paraguariensis). In: Hernández Bermejo, J.E. & León, J. (Editors): Neglected crops: 1492 from a different perspective. FAO Plant Production and Protection Series No 26. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Rome, Italy. pp. 245-252.
  • Porter, R.H., 1950. Maté, South American or Paraguay tea. Economic Botany 4: 37-51.
  • Schröder, R., 1991. Kaffee, Tee und Kardamon: tropische Genussmittel und Gewürze; Geschichte, Verbreitung, Anbau, Ernte, Aufbereitung [Coffee, tea and cardamom: tropical stimulants and spices; history, distribution, cultivation, harvest, processing]. Verlag Eugen Ulmer, Stuttgart, Germany. pp. 100-108.
  • Spichiger, R., Savolainen, V. & Manen, J.-F., 1993. Systematic affinities of Aquifoliaceae and Icacinaceae from molecular data analysis. Candollea 48: 459-464.
  • Tenorio Sanz, M.D., 1991. Mineral elements in maté herb (Ilex paraguariensis St. H.). Archivos Latinoamericanos de Nutrición 41(3): 441-454.
  • The wealth of India (various editors), 1959. A dictionary of Indian raw materials and industrial products: raw materials. Vol. 5. Publications and Information Directorate, Council of Scientific and Industrial Research, New Delhi, India. pp. 163-166.
  • Wichtl, M., 1997. Theedrogen und Phytopharmaka: ein Handbuch für die Praxis auf wissenschaftlicher Grundlage [Herbal drugs and phytopharmaceuticals: a practical handbook on a scientific basis]. Wissenschaftliche Verlagsgesellschaft, Stuttgart, Germany. pp. 668.
  • Winge, H., Ferreira, A.G., de A. Mariath, J.E. & Tarasconi, L.C., 1995. Erva-mate: biologia e cultura no Cone Sul [Maté: biology and culture in the southern Cone]. Editora da Universidade Federal de Rio Grande do Sul, Porto Alegre, Brazil. 356 pp.


S. Brotonegoro, M. del Campo Gigena & G.C. Giberti.