Rooibos meaning “red bush”; scientific name Aspalathus linearis) is a broom-like member of the Fabaceae family of plants growing in South Africa‘s fynbos. The leaves of the plant are popular in South Africa to make herbal tea called rooibos or bush tea. It is sometimes spelled rooibosch in accordance with the Old Dutch etymology.
The processing of rooibos generally involves fermentation which produces the distinctive reddish-brown colour of the tea. It also gives a malty flavour to the tea. Sometimes unfermented green rooibos is also produced but it is an expensive process and thus it a rarity. The green rooibos has a slightly grassy flavour.
As a fresh tea leaf, rooibos has a high content of ascorbic acid (vitamin C). Rooibos tea does not contain caffeine and has low tannin levels compared to black tea or green tea. Rooibos contains polyphenols,including flavanols, flavones, flavanones, dihydrochalcones, aspalathin, and nothofagin. The processed leaves and stems contain benzoic and cinnamic acids.
Rooibos teas are also graded much like regular teas. The percentage of needle or leaf to stem ratio usually determines the grade of the tea. A higher leaf content means a better rooibos. Higher leaf content accounts for a darker liquor, richer flavour, and less “dusty” aftertaste. Most high-grade rooibos teas are exported as they find few buyers in the local market. Germany is the highest consumer of the tea, using it to create flavoured blends with loose leaf teas.
In 1772, Swedish naturalist Carl Thunberg noted, “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 using donkeys. The leaves were then chopped with axes and bruised with hammers, before being left to dry in the sun.
The rooibos plant is endemic to a small part of the western coast of the Western Cape province of South Africa. It grows in a symbiotic relationship with local micro-organisms and past attempts to grow it outside this area, in places as far afield as the United States, Australia, and China, have all failed. Scientists speculate that climate change may threaten the future survival of the plant and the R600-million (approximately €43-million in March 2017) rooibos industry. Some claim that increasing temperatures and decreasing rainfall may result in the extinction of the plant within the next century.