What's in a Name? Yerba Mate (Ilex Paraguariensis)

young mate leaves

Latin Mix-up

The Yerba Mate plant, which is really a tree, is an evergreen from the Holly family that grows in the subtropical forests of South America. The French botanist Auguste de Saint Hilaire studied the plant during his travels through Brazil and gave it its scientific name in 1822. He collected samples of the tree from the region of Curitiba, in the state of Paraná, Brazil, and sent them to the Paris Museum of Natural History. During transportation, the labels were accidentally traded with samples of similar species collected from Paraguay. Yerba Maté therefore was catalogued as Ilex Paraguariensis.


“Yerba” (Spanish), or “Erva” (Portugese), means "Herb". The definition of Herb is: 1. A seed-producing annual, biennial, or perennial that does not develop persistent woody tissue but dies down at the end of a growing season. Yerba Mate does not fit this definition since it is a tree. 2. A plant or plant part valued for its medicinal, savory, or aromatic qualities. Since the leaves of the Yerba Mate tree are valued for thier medicinal properties, we might say that this definition fits. In any case, Yerba Mate has long been called an herb by the natives, due to its invigorating power.

Put la Yerba en la Mate!

The word “Mate” comes from “Matti” in Quichuá, the language of the Incas in Peru, and it actually means “gourd”. During the eighteenth century, the Vice-kingdom of Peru was the greatest importer and consumer of mate, acquiring it from the Jesuit missions in Guayrá, now Southern Brazil and some of Paraguay. The Spanish used the Quichuá term to denominate the drinking of the tea in the “matti” or gourd. The term found its way back to Guayrá, where the plant took on the name in substitution of the Guarani name: Caá, for the herb and Caáiguá (Caá – herb, I – water, guá – gourd) for the drink. When we say maté, therefore, we are not referring solely to the herb, but to the drinking of maté in a gourd, a tradition that is also called: Chimarrão (she-ma-huh-oo).