Rooibos -The Healthy Herbal Tea From South Africa

Even though it is most often marketed as a tea, rooibos is actually an herb
(Aspalathus linearis) belonging to the broom-like legume family of plants that
grow in the fynbos, a small area of natural shrub land located in a narrow belt
of the western Cape of South Africa.  The name 
linearis is in reference to the
plant’s linear growth structure and needle-like leaves.
Rooibos was first discover-
ed in 1772 by Swedish naturalist, Carl
Thunberg in the Cederberg region of South
Africa, who noticed that “the country people
made tea” from the rooibos or redbush
The locals that had discovered the herb
growing wild would climb the mountain
where it was locat- ed and harvest the fine
needle-like leaves from wild rooibos plants.
They would roll the bushes into hessian
bags and bring them back down the steep
slopes on the backs of donkeys.  They would
then chop and bruise the leaves with axes
and hammers, then leave them in the sun to
The Cape’s Dutch settlers developed rooibos as an alternative to black tea
which was not only expensive but at times difficult to obtain.  The settlers
were forced to rely on their supply of tea to arrive on supply ships from Eur-
ope which meant sometimes waiting for many months between shipments.
In 1904 a Russian-Jewish Cape settler named Benjamin Ginsberg became
fascinated with wild rooibos he found while exploring in the mountains.  He
began running experiments to perfect curing the herb from his home at
Rondegat farm.To produce rooibos tea he mimicked step-by-step the traditional Chinese manufacture of
Keemun black tea
, starting with fermenting the tea in barrels covered in wet hessian sacks to
replicate the effects of bamboo baskets.
By 1930 Ginsberg turned his attention to growing rooibos, persuading local resident and Rhodes
scholar, Dr. le Fras Nortier to experiment with cultivation of the plant.  Dr. le Fras Nortier
successfully cultivated the first plants at Clanwilliam on the Klein Kliphuis farm, which today is a
guest hotel.

At first it was difficult to obtain seeds of the
rooibos plant because they were miniscule
and blew away as soon as the pods were
cracked open, and wouldn’t germinate with-
out scarifying.  Dr. le Fras Nortier paid local
residents, some of which were his patients
to collect the rooibos seeds for him.

An aged Khoi woman showed up time
and again with a matchbox filled with
seeds for which she was paid a shilling
per box. It seemed she had found an
unusual source for the seeds. One day
while searching she happened upon a
trail of ants dragging seeds back to
their nest. She followed the trail, broke open the nest and found a granary full of rooibos

With Dr. le Fras Nortier’s attempts at cultivation finally successful, Benjamin Ginsberg
began to encourage the local farmers to cultivate rooibos gardens, with the hope that
it would eventually become a profitable venture.

Within ten years the price of rooibos seeds soared to an
astonishing 80 shillings per pound, making it the most
expensive vegetable seed in the world.  Today a special
sifting process is used to gather seed.  Rooibos has be-
come popular worldwide, sold by a number of brand name
tea companies, alone or as part of a blend.

Rooibos tea goes by several different names such as bush tea (especially in South Africa),
red- bush tea, especially in the U.K., South African red tea, or red tea.  It is sometimes
spelled with the old Dutch name, rooibusch, with the pronunciation remaining the same.

Rooibos is only grown in one small area in the region of Western Cape Province in South
Africa.  Its processing is similar to that of

black tea with the leaves fully oxidized, giving it
the distinctive reddish-brown color and enhanced flavor.
There is also an unoxidized “green” rooibos, processed in a lengthier manner similar to

green tea, which adds to the cost, making it more expensive than traditional rooibos.Rooibos is

prepared the same as black tea and served with
a slice of lemon and sugar or honey to sweeten, although it’s
often described as naturally sweet and slightly nutty, without
the need for added sweeteners.  Green rooibos is described
as malty and slightly grassy.

Coffee shops in South Africa have recently begun to sell “red espresso,” a concentrated
rooibos  made in the style of regular espresso.  Other rooibos-based variations of popular
coffee drinks  have followed such as red lattes, and red cappuccinos.  Also an 
iced tea made with rooibos is available
in South Africa, Australia, and the 
United States.
Rooibos is popular in the West, especially by health conscious consumers because of its high  levels of antioxidants,
aspalathin, and nothofagin, nocaffeine, and low tannin levels (the com pound that causes astringency in tea).  It also
contains phenolic compounds including flavones, flavanols, flavanones, and dihydrochalcones.
A recent Japanese study suggests rooibos tea may be beneficial in the topical treatment of acne due to levels of alpha
hydroxy acid, zinc, and superoxide dismutase.Rooibos is graded mainly by the percentage of needle or leaf to stem content in the mix. A higher leaf content results
in a darker liquor, richer flavor, and less “dusty” aftertaste.