The Rooibos Story – From indigenous African plant to health-food headline and chart-topping superfood!
Any great epic, any hero’s journey starts with a road.
Ours is a winding freeway called the N7 that runs north from Africa’s southernmost city, Cape Town, across 250 kilometres of farmland and ascending mountain passes into the rugged terrain and pristine wilderness of the Cederberg, an antediluvian landscape of mountains burnt orange by iron oxide, wind blasted and rain scarred; of otherworldly jagged sandstone formations and enigmatic San and Khoi rock art that speaks of people’s primal impulse to tell their story.
The breadth and height of the region, 100 kilometres in length, some 300 to 600 metres above sea level; its contradictions – dry yet shining, desolate yet rich (4 849 different plant species and counting); its extremes – temperatures that drop below zero in winter and rise to a blistering 48 degrees celcius in summer; its quiet days cored by the sun and nights opened to an obsidian heaven of planets, nebulae, clusters, galaxies and great constellations; its big self and big sky – this is the Cederberg.
For the late poet, Steven Watson, the area’s singularly South African sounding town names – Krakadouw, Wupperthal (voop-er-tul), Welbedacht, Tanqua – held, “almost the power of prayer”. But the same poet, asked to distil its matrix of energy into a single sentence threw up his hands and said, “That would be like trying to hit Mars with a peashooter.”
This then is the establishing shot that locates our unlikely hero: The Rooibos plant. Latin name, Aspalathus linearis, Rooibos (pronounced roy-boss) is an unassuming shrub-like bush with a smooth-barked main stem and delicate side branches bearing soft, needle-like leaves. Standing 1.5 metres tall at maturity and swaying this way and that in the wind, it’s really not much to look at. But it has a taproot that drills as deep as the soil and a list of healing properties which seemingly knows no limits.
Scientific research suggests Rooibos reduces risk factors of type-2 diabetes, liver disease, inflammation, oxidative stress, chronic stress, alzheimer’s, gastrointestinal problems and obesity; it protects against skin cancer and wrinkles too. It’s anti-allergenic and immune boosting and its potential in both alleviating cardiovascular disease and lowering the risk of developing heart disease is irrefutable. Metaphorically speaking, it’s the peashooter that might hit Mars.
Remarkably, Rooibos only grows in the Cederberg and south-western regions of South Africa… and nowhere else on earth. Soil scientist, Heinrich Schloms, describes this phenomenon as a perfect storm of environmental conditions: soil, temperature, minerals and microorganisms. He explains, “Rooibos thrives in well-drained, sandy, acidic, and nutrient-poor sandstone-derived soils. It has adapted to hot dry summers and cool wet winters. Rooibos is extremely sensitive to high levels of phosphorus and fertilisers but lives in happy symbiosis with specific microorganisms, which provide the plant with minerals in exchange for food.” A finicky fynbos it might be, but it’s also tenacious and extremely generous.
Rooibos is naturally caffeine free, low in tannins (the bitter compounds in green and black tea which have been shown to interfere with the absorption of certain nutrients including iron) and Rooibos does not contain any oxaclic acid (which can increase your risk of developing kidney stones). It does have alpha-hydroxy acid – a chemical often found in anti-aging cosmetics. But the real health-giving heavyweights, the biochemical big-hitters, the one-two defend-and-attack knockouts are its high dose of polyphenols (antioxidant-rich micronutrients) of which Aspalathin is the most abundant, and, wait for it, completely unique to the Rooibos plant.
Heinrich Schloms’s sister, Lindie Schloms is a biochemist with a PHD from South Africa’s University of Stellenbosch. (The Schloms’ mother grew up in a small town called Pieketberg situated at the start of the Rooibos growing region and their nostalgic ties to the tea run as deep as its roots.) Lindie cites as the most standout findings on Rooibos to date, those from a clinical trial led by Prof Jeanine Marnewick of the Cape Peninsula University of Technology (CPUT) in 2011. Marnerwick’s research showed that drinking six cups of Rooibos tea a day over a period of six weeks significantly improves several risk factors associated with cardiovascular disease. Rooibos increases the levels of glutathione, the most powerful antioxidant in the body, and has a favourable effect on blood cholesterol levels. It reduces triglycerides (a type of fat in the blood) and “bad” cholesterol levels (LDL) while increasing “good” cholesterol levels (HDL). Other studies have also shown that Rooibos significantly reduces blood pressure and blood sugar levels which, if elevated, greatly increase the risk of developing cardiovascular disease.
Lindie’s own research focused on the anti-stress properties of Rooibos. She explains, “Rooibos as well as its major polyphenol compounds are able to lower stress hormone levels by inhibiting specific enzymes involved in their production. Results obtained during my PhD indicate that Rooibos significantly favours the conversion of cortisol to cortisone, its inactive metabolite.”
From India and Pakistan to Spain, from America to Japan, dozens of trials are currently underway to explain the plant’s medicinal powers. But expecting a scientist to speak about Rooibos in layman’s terms is like asking the Cederberg’s shy wild leopard to call out in English. Phrases such as ‘polyphenolic compounds’, and ‘enzyme inhibitors’, do not sell themselves. Fortunately, for anecdotal evidence one need look no further than the locals.
In a 2019 documentary that traces the traditional knowledge of Rooibos, fourth generation Wupperthalian, Barend Salamo, smartly attired in feathered fedora and starched checked shirt, tells the story with a quiet humility and no-nonsense style common to mountain people : “Drinking Rooibos, bathing in it, washing your hair and sometimes even eating the little red sticks (‘stokkies tee’, like my grandmother used to say), is something we’ve taken for granted. We were weaned from our mothers’ breasts on Rooibos. It runs in our veins.”
Historically, Rooibos has been used as a household cure for nagging headaches, insomnia, even asthma and eczema. But its evolution from South African secret to Starbucks latte (among other global uses) is the convergence of many interrelated stories with a surprising ensemble cast: San pastoralists, Dutch settlers, a Russian immigrant, a Khoi woman, an amateur botanist, and an Afrikaans housewife.
The Cederberg’s earliest residents, the San people, attuned to living off nature and depending on plants for cures, are widely assumed to be its first users. But when early Dutch settlers trekked north from the Cape of Good Hope between 1700 and 1800 the idea of Rooibos, not as a palliative but as a substitute for highly desirable, hard to get and very expensive Oriental tea, took root. In 1904, Benjamin Goldberg whose family were reportedly purveyors of tea to the Tzar, announced that the Cederberg would be the new Ceylon. But Rooibos is no ordinary tea and the Cederberg is no Ceylon. For starters, Rooibos flowers for only one month a year, in October. Each of its small yellow flowers produce only one small pod containing only one small hard-shelled dicotyledonous seed. It wasn’t until the 1920s that a Khoi woman, Trytjie Swarts, following ants to their nest, found a seed granary – and inadvertently solved the riddle of germination. Building on her discovery, plant enthusiast Dr P Le Fras Nortier, found a way to scarify the seeds and by the 1930s Rooibos farming was a commercially viable option. During World War II, when Ceylon tea became really scarce, Rooibos grew in popularity, entrenching itself in the wider South African psysche as a domestic beverage – sweet, cheap and family-friendly. In short, underrated and overqualified.
In 1968 Mrs. Annetjie Theron, a mother struggling with an allergic infant, put the spotlight on Rooibos with her claims that it soothed her baby’s colic. She did further research and turned Rooibos into the star product of a skincare empire. In 1985 Rooibos had a taste of things to come when it made headlines in Japan for its antiaging properties. But any evidence of its anti-bacterial, anti-viral, anti-inflammatory stress-relieving, properties was still mostly anecdotal. It took three more decades, a new Democratic Constitution, the lifting of trade sanctions and a shift in consciousness about the way we consume food before Time magazine would announce Rooibos to be among the 50 Healthiest Foods of All Time (Originally published: Mar 02, 2015.)
By the millenium the demand for high functioning food had grown from a small corner of Kale-crunching hippies to mainstream supermarket aisles. Consumers no longer wanted food that was ‘just’ delicious – it needed to be nutrient dense, low in calories, and to actively defend against disease while also boosting energy levels. So, while a marketing buzzword like ‘superfood’ would seem as incongruous in the Cederberg as a spelunker in stilettos, truth be told, Rooibos ticked all the right boxes.
There are now Rooibos based artisanal gins and other Rooibos based spirits, Rooibos nutraceuticals, Rooibos cereal, Rooibos soft drinks such as BOS Ice Tea, red cappuccinos and if you go to Starbucks, Rooibos lattes.
Keen to keep a leash on the quality standards of what gets to be called “Rooibos,” the South African government commissioned a group of scientists and professional tasters to paint a sensory portrait of the plant’s characteristic flavour. Easier said than done.
Unharvested Rooibos has no smell at all. Only once it’s cut, bruised and laid out on tea courts to ‘sweat’ under the African sun does it, by some alchemical process of fermentation which has to do with enzymatic oxidation, turn from green to its signature amber and rust-red colour. Only then does Rooibos release its flavour and distinctive aroma.
Almost 70 Rooibos samples were collected throughout the 2009 harvesting season. The quality of each was evaluated by expert graders and the first version of a sensory wheel was published in the journal Food Research International in 2011. So what’s a tea drinker to look for in a good cup of Rooibos? Primarily ‘honey’, ‘woody’, ‘spicy’, and ‘caramel’.
Having mastered the lexicon, Marijke Ehlers, Client Liaison for Rooibos Ltd, South Africa’s largest Rooibos distributor, describes it like this : “In Rooibos, the stem is not an undesirable component. The traditional Rooibos taste (a balance of stem and leaf) is smooth, full and rounded with sweet notes of honey and caramel, as well as fruity notes in the forefront, and woody and floral notes in the background. The finer the cut and the higher the leaf content, the faster the infusion and the higher the astringency. The mouth feel remains soft and smooth, and sweet and fruity notes are still present, but they’re a little more muted as some woody and floral notes come to the forefront. As the cut gets finer still, some spicy notes come to the forefront too.”
Like overzealous Hollywood agents, some international interests tried to cash in on Rooibos’s fast spreading fame. Patents were taken out that trademarked Rooibos first in the United States and later in France. Both were eventually overruled and in 2014 a landmark trade agreement between South Africa and the European Union granted Rooibos Geographic Indicator status. This means that Rooibos, just like French Champagne, Spanish Sherry and Portuguese Port, can now be called Rooibos only if it comes from the fynbos region of South Africa. (This protection still has to be extended to the rest of the world.)
For now, our story ends where it starts, with the Cederberg and its Little Plant That Could. Bumped up from second rate status as a beverage buttressing the decaf side of after-dinner menus to an ingredient with gourmet grading, superfood status and its own sensory lexicon. So we pan out on a wide angle shot of a highly marketable and versatile tea with a beautiful backstory and a radiant future.