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Written by: Dunja MacAlister and Catherine Browne

Knowing, protecting and respecting the sustainable use of our natural resources are fundamental. Many South African plants have great economic and cultural value and are used in a number of ways. Here, the Botanical Society of South Africa share with you one such useful indigenous plant, commonly known as rooibos tea.

Rooibos tea, made from the plant Aspalathus linearis, is a well-known herbal tea enjoyed in over 37 countries around the world. It is one of the most commercially cultivated crops in South Africa and contributes greatly to the welfare and cultural heritage of local communities of the Western Cape. There are a variety of forms and types including, red, black, red-brown and grey rooibos with one of the red types, named Nortier, being the one we’ve come to know and appreciate as our rooibos tea.

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What is rooibos?

In 1772, the botanist Carl Thunberg first reported on the use of rooibos as a beverage by the local Hottentots but it wasn’t until 1902 that small scale production and marketing started. During the 1930s research was put into its cultivation and it was then that its economic value was exploited, which has allowed for the development of the rooibos industry as it is today.

rooibos seedlings
© Dunja MacAlister

Rooibos is a shrubby, bushy plant that grows in the harsh conditions of the Cedarberg region where temperatures range from below zero in winter to above 40°C in summer. They depend on winter rains to help them grow and no irrigation is used throughout the farming time. Rooibos survives by making a deep taproot that is able to dig down more than 3m and reach the well-drained and cool sandy soils. During October they produce small, yellow flowers, each producing a pod containing a single seed which are collected by sifting the sand around each plant.

rooibos flower
© Winfried Bruenken

Planting and harvesting

During the late summer months, the seeds are planted into prepared seedbeds where they are given enough water to ensure their germination. After a few days the first two leaves can be seen and shortly after, they start producing their needle-like leaves. When the first rains come during winter, the seedlings are transplanted into the plantations. After 18 months of growth in the plantations, they are pruned for the first time and then harvested every year after that by cutting the branches 50cm above the ground.

rooibos nursery
© Dr Samson Chimphango
Rooibos
© Rooibos Ltd

Processing

Harvested rooibos goes through a fermentation process where, during this time, its colour changes from green to red and it develops its distinct aroma and flavour. After fermenting, the rooibos is spread out in large drying vats and left to dry under the sun. It’s then collected and taken to factories for processing.

Health benefits of rooibos

Rooibos is a versatile plant and while it is most popular as a tea, it is also used in a variety of foods and beauty products. It is naturally caffeine free, full of antioxidants (most notably aspalathin), has cancer-fighting properties, low amounts of tannins and most importantly, there have been no recordings of negative side effects of drinking it, so you can enjoy rooibos tea all the time and feel good about it!

rooibos in field
© Dr Samson Chimphango

Facts about rooibos

-Full of antioxidants

-Good for your heart and diabetes

-Caffeine free

-Relieves various skin conditions

-Helps your liver

-Calms upset stomach

-Assists with weight loss

-Cancer prevention

rooibos tea
©André Helbig

-Assist against insomnia and promotes good sleep

-Prior to the 20th century, few people outside of South Africa had ever tasted or even heard of rooibos tea. Today, this delicious drink is enjoyed across the globe.

-Rooibos is not a true tea, instead an infusion, made from the leaves of the Aspalathus linearis

-Linearis, a member of the legume family and grows naturally in only one small part of the world. Hot, arid summers and cold winters, together with coarse sandy soils offer this particular species the perfect habitat.

-Green when picked, the plant’s needle-like leaves must undergo an oxidation process before they become tea. After they are chopped and bruised, the leaves are left to dry in the sun, where they take on their characteristic red colouration.

-Local Khoisan tribes of South Africa had long harvested the plant’s leaves, both to make a beverage but also a herbal remedy for a number of ailments. Early Dutch settlers in the area, adopted to drinking bush tea in place of expensive black tea imported from England.

The conservation of and awareness and education about South Africa’s indigenous flora and vegetation are focus areas of the Botanical Society. They are an NGO supporting Southern African natural heritage for over 100 years. Find out more about the Society and how you too can become a member at www.botanicalsociety.org.za. You can also support them by signing up the Botanical Society as your beneficiary on the MySchool MyVillage MyPlanet card programme.

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References

  • Hawkins H -J, Malgas R and Biénabe E. 2011. Ecotypes of wild rooibos (Aspalathus linearis (Burm. F) Dahlg., Fabaceae) are ecologically distinct. South African Journal of Botany 77: 360–370.
  • Lötter D and Le Maitre D. 2014. Modelling the distribution of Aspalathus linearis’ (rooibos tea): implications of climate change for livelihoods dependent on both cultivation and harvesting from the wild. Ecology and Evolution, 4: 1209–1221.
  • Morton J F. 1983. Rooibos tea, Aspalathus linearis, a caffeineless, low-tannin beverage. Economic Botany, 37: 164-173.
  • Rooibos Ltd
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