Rooibos tea ( Aspalathus linearis), which means “red bush” belongs to a broom-like member of the Fabaceae family of plants which grows in South Africa’s fynbos.
The leaves of this plant are used for making a herbal tea that is very well known under names: rooibos, bush tea (mainly in Southern Africa), or redbush tea (for example in Great Britain). In South Africa, The Rooibos tea has been popular for many generations, but today it is consumed also in many countries worldwide. In some cases it is spelled rooibosch according the old Dutch. Taste and color of this tea is similar to hibiscus tea, or yerba mate with earthy flavor.
The generic name of Rooibos tea comes from the Greek name aspalathos for Calicotome villosa with similar growth and flowers to the rooibos tea plant. The specific name of linearis comes from the plant’s linear growing structure and needle-like leaves.
The tea can be prepared in the similar way as black tea. To fine tune its taste you can add milk and sugar. Other option to sweeten is to use lemon and honey instead of sugar.
In 1772, Swedish naturalist Carl Thunberg noticed how the local country people made tea.
They would climb the mountains and cut leaves from wild rooibos plants. They rolled the leaves into bags and brought them down the slopes using donkeys.
The leaves were later chopped with axes and bruised with hammers. Afterwards they were left to dry in the sun.
Dutch settlers of the Cape were used to drink traditional black tea, but that was an expensive commodity because relied on supply ships from Europe. So instead black tea they started to drink rooibos tea.
The major hurdle in growing red bush tea commercially was that farmers were not able to germinate the tea seeds.
So in 1904, Benjamine Ginsberg ran couple of experiments to solve this problem. Another experiments with rooibos plant cultivation were ran in 1930 by botanist Dr Pieter Le Fras Nortier.
Dr Nortier cultivated the first plants at Clanwilliam on his farm Eastside and on the farm Klein Kliphuis. The tiny seeds were very difficult to come by. Dr Nortier paid the local villagers £5 per matchbox of seeds collected. An aged Khoi woman found an unusual seed source: having chanced upon ants dragging seed, she followed them back to their nest and, on breaking it open, found a granary. Dr. Nortier’s research was ultimately successful and he subsequently showed all the local farmers how to germinate their own seeds. The secret lay in scarifying the seed pods. Dr Nortier placed a layer of seeds between two mill stones and ground away some of the seed pod wall. Thereafter the seeds were easily propagated. Over the next decade the price of seeds soared to an astounding £80 a pound, the most expensive vegetable seed in the world, as farmers rushed to plant rooibos.
Today, the seed is gathered by special sifting processes. Dr Nortier is today accepted as the father of the rooibos tea industry. Thanks to his research, rooibos tea, originally just an indigenous drink, became an iconic national beverage and then a globalised commodity. Rooibos tea production is today the economic mainstay of the Clanwilliam district. In 1948 The University of Stellenbosch awarded Dr Nortier an Honorary Doctorate D.Sc (Agria) in recognition for his valuable contribution to South African agriculture.
Rooibos Tea Production and processing
Rooibos usually grows in a small mountains area Cederberg, in the Western Cape province area in South Africa.
Rooibos tea leaves undergo fermentation process that produces the reddish-brown colour and enhances its flavour. Also unfermented “green” version of rooibos is produced, but the more demanding production process (similar to the green tea ) makes it more expensive than classic rooibos. It also has a slightly malty and grassy flavour which is different from its red version.