Through the 17th and 18th centuries, European
travellers and botanists visiting the Cederberg region in South Africa
commented on the profusion of "good plants" for curative purposes.
In 1772, Swedish botanist Carl Thunberg noted that "the country people
made tea" from a plant related to rooibos or redbush.
Traditionally the local people would climb the mountains and cut the fine
needle-like leaves from wild rooibos plants. They then rolled the bunches
of leaves into hessian bags and brought them down the steep slopes on
the backs of donkeys. The leaves were then chopped with axes and bruised
with hammers, before being left to dry in the sun.
The Dutch settlers to the Cape developed rooibos as an alternative to
black tea, an expensive commodity for the settlers who relied on supply
ships from Europe.
In 1904, Benjamin Ginsberg, a Russian/Jewish settler to the Cape, riding
in the remote mountains, became fascinated with this wild tea. He ran
a wide variety of experiments at Rondegat Farm, finally perfecting the
curing of rooibos. He simulated the traditional Chinese method of making
very fine Keemun, by fermenting the tea in barrels, covered in wet, hessian
sacking that replicates the effects of bamboo baskets.
In the 1930s, Ginsberg persuaded a local doctor and Rhodes scholar, Dr.
le Fras Nortier, to experiment with cultivation of the plant. Le Fras
Nortier cultivated the first plants at Clanwilliam on the Klein Kliphuis
farm. The tiny seeds were difficult to obtain, as they dispersed as soon
as the pods cracked, and would not germinate without scarifying. Le Fras
Nortier paid farmers to collect seeds. An aged Khoi woman had found a
rather unusual source of supply. She came again and again, receiving a
shilling for each matchbox filled with seed. She had chanced upon ants
dragging seed one day, followed them back to their nest and, on breaking
it open, found a granary. The attempts by Dr. le Fras Nortier were ultimately
successful, which led Ginsberg to encourage local farmers to cultivate
the plant in the hope that it would become a profitable venture. Klein
Kliphuis became a tea farm, and within ten years the price of seeds soared
to an astounding £80 a pound, the most expensive vegetable seed
in the world. Today the seed is gathered by special sifting processes,
and Klein Kliphuis is now a guest farm.
Since then, rooibos has grown in popularity in South Africa, and has gained
considerable momentum in the worldwide market too. A growing number of
brand-name tea companies sell this tea, either by itself or as a component
in an ever-growing variety of blends.
In South Africa it is more common to drink rooibos with milk and sugar,
but elsewhere it is usually served without. The flavour of rooibos tea
is often described as being sweet (without sugar added) and slightly nutty.
Rooibos can be prepared in the same manner as black tea, and this is the
most common method. Unlike black tea, however, rooibos does not become
bitter when steeped for a long time; some households leave the tea to
steep for days at a time. Rooibos tea is a reddish brown colour, explaining
why rooibos is sometimes referred to as "red tea". Unlike some
higher quality oolong or green teas, rooibos is often only good for a
very limited re-steeping as there is a sharp drop off in brewing after
the first infusion.
Several coffee shops in South Africa have recently begun to sell red espresso,
which is concentrated rooibos served and presented in the style of ordinary
espresso (which is normally coffee-based). This has given rise to rooibos-based
variations of coffee drinks such as red lattes and red cappuccinos. Iced
tea made from rooibos has recently been introduced in South Africa as
well, and in Australia as Lipton "Red Tea, Rooibos & Guarana".
The plant (and the products made from it) is widely known as Rooibos (pronounced
ROY-BOSS). In some countries it is also called “redbush” or
“African red tea”. The Aspalathus plant group, part of the
legume family, and to which Rooibos belongs, consists of more than 200
species which occur only in South Africa and of which only the species
Aspalathus linearis has any economic value. Had it not been for the mountain
inhabitants of the Western Cape, this species would today have been known
merely as one of the many indigenous shrub-like bushes found in these
The plant is a shrub-like bush with a central, smooth-barked main stem.
Near the soil surface the stem subdivides into a number of strong offshoots,
followed by delicate side branches each bearing, singly or in clusters,
soft, needle-like leaves some ten centimetres in length.
The plants height at maturity varies from one to 1,5 metres in its natural
state, while the height of harvested plants varies from 0,5 to 1,5 metres,
depending on the age of the plant, or the climate and soil conditions
in the area of production.
Rooibos is a fynbos species within the Cape Floral Kingdom, one of only
six recognised floral kingdoms of the world. Rooibos is a broom-like member
of the legume family of plants.
Although the plant requires a production area with winter rainfall, its
active growth only starts in spring, increasing towards midsummer after
which growth declines. The plant is usually covered with small, yellow,
pea-shaped flowers during October. The flowers each produce a small legume
containing a single, very small, light yellow, hard-shelled, dicotyledonous
seed. Rooibos seed is by nature very hard-shelled. The seed is scrubbed
with mechanical scourers to increase the germination potential from approximately
25 - 30% to 85 - 95%.
Rooibos seed is a precious article, simply because each legume bears only
one seed which pops open and shoots out as soon as it is ripe. For this
reason the seed was extremely expensive before it was discovered that
ants were its main harvesters. Today some farmers still collect seed from
anthills, but more commonly by sifting the sand around the plants. One
kilogram of seed yields approximately eight hectares of Rooibos.
Rooibos tea is steam pasteurized before packing. The Perishable Products
Export Control Board (PPECB) of South Africa ensures that all exported
Rooibos products pass a plant health and safety inspection and are certified
to be free of bacteria and impurities.
Generally, the leaves are oxidised, a process often, and inaccurately,
referred to as fermentation by analogy with tea-processing terminology.
This process produces the distinctive reddish-brown colour of rooibos
and enhances the flavour. Unoxidised "green" rooibos is also
produced, but the more demanding production process for green rooibos
(similar to the method by which green tea is produced) makes it more expensive
than traditional rooibos.
The “fermentation” process involves oxidation, brought about
by enzymes naturally present in the plant. During this process the product
changes from green to a deep amber colour and develops its distinctive
aroma. After fermentation the Rooibos is spread out to dry in the sun.
The Rooibos is sorted and graded according to length, colour, flavour
Rooibos seeds are sown between February to March and the seedlings transplanted
a few months later. It takes about 18 months before plants can be harvested
for the first time. Each spring the plant is covered with small yellow
flowers. Each flower produces a small legume with a single seed inside.
The Rooibos seeds pop out when they are ripe and can therefore be difficult
to collect. Early Rooibos farmers got hold of the local wisdom that ants
harvested the seeds and that they could collect Rooibos seeds from anthills.
Today, most farmers collect the seeds by sifting the sand around the plants.
During the summer harvest, the plants are cut to about 30 cm from the
ground. After three to five harvests, the Rooibos plantation must be re-established.
The harvested shoots are bound into sheaves and cut to less than 4 mm.
The green leaves and stems are either bruised and “fermented”
in heaps (to produce traditional Rooibos) or immediately dried to prevent
oxidation (for green Rooibos).
All Rooibos, whether for domestic use or the export market, is steam pasteurized
to ensure a product of high microbial quality. The product is then sent
in bulk (loose tea leaves) to various packers and exporters in South Africa.
Every stage of the production process, from receiving Rooibos to final
packaging is subjected to stringent quality control and laboratory testing
to ensure that the final product exceeds the customer's most exacting
The production process conforms to the standards laid down by the HACCP
(Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point) system and the final product
is inspected, prior to shipment, by PPECB (Perishable Products Export
Control Board) of the Department of Agriculture.
Under supervision of the internationally recognised company Ecocert, a
portion of the total Rooibos production is organically grown to meet specific
customer needs. NOP, JAS, Kosher and Halaal certified products are also