Guayusa (family: Aquifoliacae; genus: Ilex) (also known as aguayusa, wayusa, wayus, huayusa, guañusa, waiyoosa, guayyusa, wausa, wais (Shuar language), wuís (Shuar language), emonteibiquime (Huoarani language), kopíniuk (Záparo language)) is a shade-grown, perennial Amazonian holly tree that grows as a shrub or small tree under the forest canopy of other native tree species from southern Colombia to northern Peru. In Ecuador, it is known to be present in the provinces of Sucumbíos, Napo, Pastaza, Morona Santiago, and Zamora Chinchipe, but has also been found up to 2000 meters along the Eastern foothills of the Andes. The plant grows naturally in the area and is (or was) cultivated by a variety of indigenous groups, including the following: Napo Runa (Quichua), Canelos Runa (Quichua), Quijos Runa (Quichua), Shuar, Achuar, Záparo, Shiwiar, Omagua, Kokama, Pánoba, Kaschibo, Koto, Pioché, Lamisto, Kichos, Kanelo, Aguano, Kandoschi, Sssabela, Chívaro, Mayoruna, Tshayahuita, Tschamakiro, Chebero, Omurana, Yagua, Auischiri, Ssimaku, Ikito, Yameo and Pintsche.

The tree generally grows to a height of 10 meters, has a diameter of 50-80 centimeters, and presents dense foliage. The trunk has white bark and a smooth texture. The branches are extended and flexible. The leaves are leatherback, olive-green, oblong-elliptical, serrated, 15-21 centimeters in length, 5-7.5 centimeters in width, with a short petiole of 1 centimeter in length. The fruit is a round green berry almost 1 centimeter in width. The flower has a white-green corolla, with obtuse petals, stamens in the same number as the petals, oblong anthers, and a sub global sessile ovary usually with 4-6 cavities.

Guayusa leaves have been eaten and/or boiled and drunk for centuries by a variety of indigenous groups, including the Kichwa people of Napo. The most common method of consumption is as a tea resulting from boiling the guayusa leaves in a pot of water over a wood fire, using the same set of leaves multiple times before replacing them with new ones. Guayusa tea is traditionally drunk in the early morning hours (between 2 and 5 o’clock) using a small, wooden, gourde-like bowl called a pilche, which is made from the fruit of a local tree species and believed to enhance the flavor.

The guayusa leaf, whether chewed or drunk as a tea, is believed to have a wide variety of uses. Such uses include use as a physical and mental stimulant, pain reliever, diuretic, aphrodisiac, fertility enhancer, and in the prevention of fly, wasp, and snake bites. Communities also believe guayusa provides a person with good luck or a successful day of hunting and fishing.

Guayusa trees can be found wild, but many indigenous peoples also grow the tree near their homes and keep it on hand for regular daily consumption. When guayusa is consumed, a variety of cultural activities take place. Often, stories are told, dreams are interpreted, and elders play the flute or the drums. During this time, the family also plans the work day, prepares instruments needed for hunting, fishing, and daily life in the jungle (nets, spears, etc.), and advises young people about proper behavior and family/community responsibilities.

Kichwa elder Vicente Francisco Grefa Salazar shared one of the prominent myths surrounding the origin of human consumption of the guayusa leaf in the Amazon. The story was told in Kichwa, translated into Spanish by Vicente’s son-in-law and Runa technician, Patricio Andy, and translated here to English:

Guayusa was used long before the Spanish and Incan conquests. A long time ago, guayusa was unknown to anyone. At that time, the jungle was very aggressive with people, and people were always tired and couldn’t do anything. They were sleepy all the time and had no strength. This was the biggest problem facing the first people in the Amazon. So, one day a man went into the forest, sat down next to a tree, and fell asleep. All of a sudden, the guayusa tree called his attention, telling him, “take my leaves and eat them.” Again, it told him, “eat the leaves.” The man got up and looked around, wondering who was talking to him. Once again, the guayusa tree said, “take my leaves and chew them.” The man then realized it was the tree that was talking to him, so he grabbed a leaf and chewed it. He ate the leaf and immediately felt relieved, no longer sleepy, feeling energized and strong.

After experiencing the effects of the guayusa leaf, he harvested the rest of the leaves and took them to his family. He first shared the leaves with his family, then told all the neighbors about his experience and urged them to consume it so they would not feel lazy or tired but have lots of energy. From this moment on, the Kichwa people began to chew the guayusa leaf, and later decided to cook it.

Due to its varied applications, connections to native mythology and cosmology, and continuity of use among the Kichwa people in the Napo province, it serves as a central element of local cultural identity and lifestyle.

Note: As of July 2014, there has been an expansion of the guayusa trust item in the form of an Ethnobotany report of Guayusa found at the bottom of this page. This was authored by Juan F. Dueñas-Serrano, Christopher Jarrett, Ian Cummins, and Eliot Logan-Hines.

Ethnobotany of Guayusa 2014 by Juan F. Dueñas-Serrano, Christopher Jarrett, Ian Cummins, and Eliot Logan-Hines186.43 KB