The Histories: Rooibos

Rooibos is not tea. Tea, in any colour – green, black, white – all comes from one plant, Camellia sinensis. Rooibos is an herbal infusion made from the leaves of the plant Aspalathus linearis, which is a sweet name. It’s also known as red bush (the translation of the name from Afrikaans), and that’s an apt description of what you buy at the store, but the plant itself is a lovely green colour with yellow flowers. The leaves are fermented after the harvest to produce its red colour, which is similar to mahogany or the golden-red of amber.

A cup of Rishi rooibos held against the light to show the colour.

Pronounced “roy-bos”, the taste is usually described along the lines of “pleasant, slightly sweet.” I’ve personally been a fan of rooibos for a long time, which is why it’s come up so soon in my tea-post-arc. It’s caffeine-free, always a good thing to find. The list of ailments it’s said to help with is long and impressive, but very little clinical research has been done so far. In light of this, I won’t be posting any of the potential medicinal benefits, but you’ll be able to find them in the government study below (page 23).

This plant is only grown in the Cape Floristic Region of South Africa (specifically the Cedarburg) – and when I say “only grown” I mean that literally. Rooibos was granted Geographic Indicator status in 2016, protecting the name from referring to anything else from anywhere else, the same way champagne can only come from the French region of Champagne. People have tried to grow Rooibos in many other parts of the world, all unsuccessfully. There are only six Floral Kingdoms in the world; according to the World Heritage Organisation, this is the smallest, and “relatively the most diverse.” The region “represents less than .5% of the area of Africa, but is home to nearly 20% of the continent’s flora.” This is an immense amount of biodiversity, especially considering the size of the African continent.

Rooibos is harvested in a way not unlike how tea is. The leaves are cut from the top of the plant, sheaved, and then heaped and watered, inciting the fermentation that creates the red colour. It’s then shipped off for further processing and packaging. If you’re interested in more of that process, there’s a surprisingly good description here (and yes, that’s a link to a company that sells rooibos espresso). There’s also a cute story about a good batch of fermenting rooibos attracting bees to collect the nectar the process produces. I have no idea if it’s true, but I can imagine that’s something bees would be happy about.

Here we come to a problem: the point of these posts is to illuminate the history of common foodstuffs that have had an impact on our world far greater than you would expect of the things that are tucked in the back of your pantry. It might seem that Rooibos, which is still a fairly unusual herb outside of its home turf of South Africa, might not make the cut. It might be true that Rooibos hasn’t had a major affect on world history, but it has had an enormous impact on the economics of the Cedarburg. It is also possible that this little plant is going to continue to impact the future of the world. The industry faces many immediate problems. One is climate change; the region is getting hotter and drier, and the farmers are having to adapt. Another is invasive species, a big problem in an area of such biodiversity, and also one which threatens water security, causes soil erosion, and many other issues. The Working for Water program was started in 1995 to combat invasive species while also providing jobs for local communities.

The next problem is no less important, but far more complicated. I wouldn’t usually stick my nose into this, but I think ethical consumerism is important and if I’m going to talk about rooibos I can’t just skip it. As you might know, South Africa was colonised by the Dutch and the British before gaining official independence in 1931. “Colonisation” is such an innocent-sounding word. What could be the harm in only a colony? Of course, as with many other parts of the world, there were already people living in what is now South Africa, and specifically in the region where rooibos grows. I actually read an article about rooibos that implied that these indigenous groups passed on their knowledge of the plant to the colonists and then died out, paving the way for the industry to blossom. They most certainly did not die out. The Khoi and San peoples are alive and still occupying this region today. The problem is that they are marginalised, living in poverty, and have limited access to basic necessities.

In 1992 the United Nations signed into effect the Convention on Biological Diversity, which was expanded with the Nagoya Protocol in 2011. The Nagoya Protocol (On Access to Genetic Resources and the Fair and Equitable Sharing of Their Utilisation to the Convention on Biological Diversity) states that benefits need to be shared with the people from whom the traditional knowledge supporting the industry comes. South Africa passed regulations along this line in 2008. Now, theoretically this is really good for the Khoi and San, but as usual it’s not that easy.

These two groups are sometimes put together as the Khoi-San (and sometimes the Khoi are called KhoiKhoi), but they are separate groups. The San are traditionally hunter-gatherers, the Khoi pastoralists. According to the report the South African government commissioned on the traditional knowledge of the rooibos industry, “the San people are regarded as the longest continuous inhabitants of a single area and are believed to be the progenitors of the rest of humankind. They are also believed to be the oldest human inhabitants of South Africa.” The Khoi have not been in South Africa quite as long, but they are still agreed to have been there long before the arrival of the Europeans, which is the important thing for this purpose.

In terms of establishing benefit sharing agreements, the Khoi-San needed to be confirmed as the holders of traditional knowledge related to rooibos, and this was the point of the South African government’s report. Traditional knowledge means information, customs, skills, innovations, that are passed from generation to generation and are protected by the indigenous or local people that keep them. The report also needed to establish whether the rooibos industry gained its knowledge of the plant from the Khoi-San. The industry itself, it might be important to know, is mostly controlled by people who are not, well, the term they use in South Africa is “coloured” which has a very different connotation here in America … but since this post isn’t about America I should use the proper terminology, even if it gives me the collywobbles.

Obviously the industry does not think that their traditional knowledge of rooibos originally came from the Khoi-San, but the biggest problem is that there is very little historical evidence of rooibos at all, except for the odd comment here and there by botanists like Carl Thunberg, and of course the oral histories of the Khoi-San people. The report concludes that the perception of the Khoi-San people that the traditional knowledge resides within their community is enough, particularly in light of the fact that there is no evidence to dispute this. If you want more information I’d suggest reading the report – the conclusion begins on page 49.

So the South African Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA) has been urging the industry to begin sharing benefits with the Khoi and San peoples. This is no easy task. The industry is already established, the lines have already been drawn. It’s also true that the industry has made some advancements and innovations relating to rooibos production and use. One potential issue is that as rooibos is tested for its health-related properties, demand for the plant, whether as tea or extract or enzymes or whatever, may explode, and protecting the interests of relatively small-scale farms against major corporations will be difficult. There is another question of sustainable farming, and the difference and benefits of cultivated rooibos, versus rooibos harvested from the wild.

It’s an ongoing process, as is everything. The DEA is only suggesting that newcomers to the industry begin working with the community, leaving everyone else grandfathered in, as far as I am aware. And there are very small co-operatives run by the communities and directly benefiting those who have been disadvantaged. The elder of the two, both fair-trade and organic with a focus on sustainable farming, is the Wuppertal Tea Association, which supplies rooibos to Equal Exchange. The second is the Heiveld Co-operative, which can also be bought from Equal Exchange, but is much harder to track down.

Speaking of actually drinking the tea, it’s time to move on to our tasting! Of course we did a tasting, but unfortunately nothing from the co-ops above, because I just wasn’t that organised, and also because the idea of these tastings is usually to use products that are readily available – yes, I do see the problem with that, and as we continue this tea arc I’ll try to be better.

rooibos flavour wheel
The Rooibos flavour wheel – can someone tell me what “wet hessian” is?

This time I’m going to do something a little differently: instead of the bullet points of the Honey and Earl Grey posts, we just agreed on a general description of the tea. Rooibos has its own flavour wheel (above), and honestly it needs one, because as you might expect, it has a significantly different flavour profile than actual tea.

The green Rishi tin, a cup of tea, and the leaves displayed on white marble. I know the marble is getting overused, but I wanted something white to show the differences in the leaves.

The first rooibos we tasted was from Rishi, which is a well established American retailer. I couldn’t find anything on the website that says where they get their rooibos from – it is certified organic, but not fair trade.

The Rishi rooibos tea leaves. Pay attention to the leaves in this post – you’ll be able to see a difference from one to the next.

To begin the description of this tea, I have to say that one of the tasters wrote in their notes that it was the colour of “dino goo in Jurassic Park” which is obviously the highest praise that can be given, and there’s really not much more for me to say. However, I think it should also be noted that this tea has quite a woodsy, earthy flavour, of “faint cherry” or “tree sap” and faint notes of caramel sweetness.

The Ajiri tea box is recyclable and includes banana bark artwork made by Kenyan women. Next to the box is a cup of the brewed tea, and beside that is a tea bag, which appears to have the same woman from the artwork actually harvesting rooibos …

The next rooibos we tried was Ajiri, and I am rolling up my sleeves, my friends, because I just wrote an entire post on benefit sharing with a marginalised community and how difficult that is, and these turkeys went and put kitschy knick-knacks made by Kenyan women on their box of South African tea. I don’t want to insult any of you by putting a map of the African continent up here, but Kenya and South Africa are nowhere near each other. This is about as ridiculous as a Spanish cazuela made of Dutch delftware – it doesn’t make sense and it renders the cazuela useless. Despite what I am sure is a well intended gesture, it’s so misinformed that it stinks of a bad marketing ploy, intended to capitalise on Wealthy White Western Patronage™.

A cup of Ajiri tea with the handmade label and twine and beads that are found in the box.

100% of the profits go to orphan education in Kenya, which is impressive, but again I have to ask why profits from South African tea go to orphans in Kenya, when marginalised people in South Africa are trying so hard to break into this industry. Now, to be fair, they (this American company) started by selling Kenyan tea from Kenyan co-ops, so they do have a reason to plaster their packaging with all of this – however, their rooibos is only organic, which implies that they aren’t partnering with the rooibos co-ops, which are fair trade.

The leaves of the Ajiri tea – using a teabag means that the leaves are in smaller particles.

Putting all of that aside, let’s focus on the taste. This tea has a particular heaviness in the mouth, which starts as wet and woodsy and then becomes sweet, which is either described as caramel and burnt sugar, or a vegetal, medicinal hint of rotting fruit. It’s more red than golden in colour.


Surprise! The third tea we tasted was not actually rooibos! It’s honeybush, which is again a separate plant (the genus is Cyclopia, and there are several species), but is grown in the same region and faces many of the same difficulties. The honeybush industry is much smaller, and it may be that as it grows, post the report on benefit sharing, which was also about honeybush, the industry will be more balanced. I was going to talk about it earlier, but I wanted to keep it a surprise that this is actually a two-in-one post. Honeybush even has a separate flavour wheel – which is good because it also has a distinct taste. Like rooibos, honeybush is caffeine free, and is said to have many medicinal qualities, which can be found on page 39 of the report.

A cup of Smith’s honeybush, showing off the lovely peachy colour. The leaves, which are actually more like stems, are at the right, and are much darker and woodier than rooibos.

Honeybush is hard to find in the States, but Steven Smith, the retailer from Portland, sells it. Smith has a lot of information on their website about where their teas come from, and by the looks of it their honeybush is harvested in the wild.

I’d never actually had honeybush before, but I was really impressed. The best way to describe it to someone who’s never had it, I think, is that it looks and tastes rather like rosé, the wine that has just enough grape skin in it to colour it pink, but not enough to make it red wine.

A close up of the “leaves” of honeybush.

Honeybush is aptly named. It’s slightly sweeter than rooibos. There’s a hint of dried cherries in this cup, a bit of wood (dried, not wet), and it’s slightly astringent, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It doesn’t make for a strong cup of tea – with no caffeine and subtle flavour, don’t expect this to be your morning wake-up cuppa.

The bag of Steven Smith’s rooibos, a cup of the tea, and a pile of the leaves, which are far more thin and needle-like than the others we tried – the leaves of the plant are usually described as needle-like.

For the sake of experimentation, I wanted to try more of Smith‘s than just their honeybush. This is their rooibos, which is a lovely golden orange, and according to the consensus we came to, tastes like sunshine, and was surprisingly thought to taste more like honey than the honeybush.

A cup of Smith’s rooibos and a close up of the leaves.

Steven Smith does have a batch lookup on their website, but for some reason it wasn’t working for either the honeybush or rooibos. I’m only guessing, because it doesn’t say, but I don’t believe the rooibos to have been wild harvested.

The bag of Smith’s Red Nectar, the cup of brewed tea, and the leaves.

The final tasting was another Smith product, because they seem to be doing the most interesting things with rooibos, at least in the States. Red Nectar is actually a blend of rooibos, honeybush, and green rooibos (unfermented).


Red Nectar is stronger than either rooibos or honeybush; there’s an earthy and floral perfume, a flavour described as “berry fruit juice” and it was considered by some to be a bit too sweet. It is quite sweet. I love it, but not everyone did.

That concludes this entry into the world of rooibos, and quite a world it is. Rooibos is a really delicious addition to your tea cabinet, or drawer, or wherever you would like. It’s worth keeping an eye on. Someday soon rooibos is going to be the next big health miracle. In the meantime, enjoy it.


Further Reading:

If you’re interested in reading more on the San and Khoi people, the report above is a good place to start. It’s well footnoted and is a good overview of their history. If you want to continue from there, it’s probably worth having a look at the  San Code of Research Ethics, and the scientific communities’ response.

For more information on the report and its affect on the community, these are good articles, 1, 2, and 3.





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