South Africa’s very own rooibos Aspalathus linearis is endemic to the mountains of the Cederberg Range.
Words and images by Ron Swilling
It is found in a radius of 150km around Clanwilliam, where the sandy soil and Mediterranean-type climate provide ideal conditions.
A fynbos species, it forms part of the Cape Floral Kingdom, the smallest and most diverse of the world’s floral kingdoms.
Did you know
- The plant has green needle-like leaves and grows to a height of about 1 – 1.5 metres.
- Rooibos is harvested once a year in the hot summer months between January and April.
- The branches are cut about 30-40cm above the ground, using a sickle or a harvesting machine, before being bound into bundles and taken to the processing area. Here it is cut into the required lengths and laid out in the processing yard, where water is added and it is properly aired.
- This is followed by ‘bruising’, an essential process for fermentation of red rooibos, releasing the enzymes essential for oxidation. This is the time when the plant changes from green into its distinctive amber-red colour, giving it its name ‘rooibos’ – ‘red bush’ – and it develops its characteristic sweet aroma.
- Once dried, the rooibos is put into large bags to be taken to the factory, where it is graded according to length, colour and flavour, sieved, sterilised and packed.
- (Green rooibos is unfermented rooibos and is dried quickly after it is cut.)
- Rooibos was used medicinally by the inhabitants of the Cederberg region.
- Early Dutch settlers started drinking rooibos tea in the late seventeenth century as an alternative to the more expensive black tea.
- It was only in 1904 that Russian immigrant, Benjamin Ginsberg, recognised the marketing potential of the ‘mountain tea’.
- He was assisted by amateur botanist and local doctor, Dr Le Fras Nortier, who by 1930 had discovered how to germinate rooibos seed. With the help of commercial farmer Olof Bergh, he developed cultivation methods, which enabled rooibos to be grown commercially.
- Rooibos tea is low in tannins, caffeine-free and contains abundant anti-oxidants.
- It is believed to have many health benefits, including anti-allergenic, anti-spasmodic and anti-carcinogenic properties. Gesondheid! (To your health!)