Rooibos (pronounced roy-boss) has been appreciated for centuries in its native South Africa. Unlike black or Ceylon teas brewed from leaves of the Camellia sinensis plant, rooibos is not a true tea. Instead, this drink is a tisane or herbal infusion, made from leaves harvested from the Aspalathus linearis plant.
The Aspalathus linearis Plant
A. linearis, a member of the legume family, grows naturally in only one small part of the world -- a section of western South Africa called the Cederberg region. Here the hot and arid summers, cold winters and coarse sandy soil offer an ideal habitat for this particular species. Speakers of the Dutch-based Afrikaans language dubbed the plant rooibos or “red bush.”
Green when picked, the plant’s needle-like leaves must undergo an oxidation process before they become tea. After they are chopped and bruised, the leaves are left to dry in the hot sun, where they take on the characteristic deep mahogany red coloring associated with rooibos. By employing a slightly different processing method, similar to that used to create green tea, tea producers can also create a more delicate-tasting “green” rooibos brew.
History of Rooibos Tea
In 1772, Swedish naturalist Carl Thunberg first documented the local people’s use of A. linearis leaves for tea. Native Khoisan tribes of South Africa had long harvested the plant’s leaves, both to make a beverage and to create an herbal remedy for a variety of ailments. Early Dutch settlers in the area adopted the habit of drinking “bush tea” in place of expensive black tea imported from Europe.
It was not until the 20th century, however, that rooibos tea attracted global attention. A Russian immigrant named Benjamin Ginsberg, whose family had long traded in European teas, recognized the marketing potential of the South African brew. Advertising it as “mountain tea,” Ginsberg in 1904 became the first exporter of rooibos. A renewed interest was generated in 1968, when a South African mother named Annetjie Theron published a book extolling the virtues of rooibos tea in helping soothe her baby’s colic and allergies.
Flavor and Appearance
Despite the fact that it's technically an herbal infusion, rooibos tea is every bit as hearty and flavorful as a cup of regular black tea, but without the caffeine. Once brewed in hot water, the red leaves create a rich amber-colored liquid, often described as tasting fruity and slightly sweet. South Africans traditionally serve rooibos tea hot, topped with milk and sweetened with sugar or honey. It's equally enjoyable plain, either hot or iced.
Proponents of rooibos have credited the tea with all sorts of medicinal benefits, including the treatment of allergies, insomnia and dyspepsia. Test tube studies of red tea are encouraging, indicating that rooibos may potentially play a role in helping to prevent heart disease and liver injury, and in reducing cancer risk. But more rigorous studies are necessary to establish what, if any, health benefits rooibos tea confers, according to the NYU Langone Medical Center. Meanwhile, you can simply enjoy this satifying drink for its lovely color and distinctive taste. Many people appreciate the fact that tea brewed from rooibos is naturally decaffeinated, making it an ideal bedtime beverage.
Ideas For Serving
You can purchase rooibos as a loose tea, or in tea bags. Some manufacturers sell rooibos tea leaves combined with other herbal teas or with complementary flavors, such as vanilla or various spices or fruits. Unlike with black teas, you can steep, refrigerate and reheat rooibos without it deteriorating in flavor or taking on bitterness.
You may also wish to try rooibos as an ingredient in your cooking, substituting the tea for liquids in desserts, soups, stews and casseroles. You can find recipes using rooibos at the Redbush Tea Company website, including one for salmon graced with a sauce made from courgettes (zucchini), horseradish and redbush tea.
Precious Ramotswe and “Bush Tea”
Fans of the “No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency” books by Alexander McCall Smith know of main character Precious Ramotswe’s intense fondness for “bush tea.” In this mystery series set in Botswana, Mma Ramotswe sips many cups of South African red tea as she ponders her clients' cases as well as the problems and joys of life.
“This tea is for people who really appreciate tea. Ordinary tea is for anyone.”
Precious Ramotswe in “Morality for Beautiful Girls” by Alexander McCall Smith
The Future of Rooibos
Rooibos lovers may possibly have to pay more for their favorite tea in the coming years. Recent droughts have affected the yields of many South African rooibos farmers, according to a November 2011 article published by the global news agency IPS. The A. linearis plant thrives in the harsh weather extremes of the Cederberg region, where temperatures in winter can drop below freezing, and in summer may reach as high as 115 degrees Fahrenheit. But the plant’s success also depends on vital rains that in this region normally occur between May and August. Because A. linearis requires a specific microclimate, a continued lack of rainfall may make the production of this unique crop difficult for farmers to sustain.
A small group of indigenous South African rooibos growers are seeking solutions in an attempt to salvage their livelihoods. Their formation of fair trade tea cooperatives is described in a July 2010 article in the British newspaper “The Guardian." Instead of growing a cultivated form of A. linearis as do the large-scale commercial growers, these independent farmers are experimenting with planting sustainably harvested wild rooibos plants, which are more drought-resistant.
South African Rooibos Council
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