The Western Cape climate is tough on plants. So fynbos plants have adapted over millions of years to grow in conditions of searing summer heat and drought, cold wet winters and nutrient-poor soils.
In this process of adaptation, many fynbos plants have evolved to produce chemical substances to make them drought-resistant and unattractive to browsing animals. Some of these substances are also good for people. The indigenous people of the Western Cape, the Khoisan, knew about and used this fynbos pharmacy in their traditional medicines.
Rooibos tea is made from the leaves of Aspalathus linearis. This shrub grows naturally on mountain slopes in the winter rainfall area from about Vanrhynsdorp in the north to the Cape Peninsula and the Betty’s Bay area in the south. Rooibos tea is made from selected forms of the species found mainly on the Cederberg Mountains. It is now cultivated on sandy soils in the valleys of the Olifants, Breede and Hex Rivers.
In 1772, Swedish naturalist Carl Thunberg noted that “the country people made tea” from a local plant. Traditionally, the local people would climb the mountains and cut the fine, needle-like leaves from wild rooibos plants. They put the cuttings into hessian bags and brought them down the steep slopes using donkeys.
The leaves were then chopped into smaller pieces and bruised with hammers, an essential process for fermentation of red rooibos, releasing the enzymes essential for oxidation. This is the time when the plant changes from green into its distinctive amber-red colour, giving it its name rooibos or ‘red bush’. The tea leaves are ultimately left to dry in the sun.
Dutch settlers to the Cape learned to drink rooibos tea as an alternative to black tea, an expensive commodity for the settlers who relied on supplies from Europe.
Early in the 20th century, a businessman named Benjamin Ginsberg, experimented with curing rooibos. He simulated the traditional Chinese method of fermenting the tea in barrels. However, at the time it was not feasible to grow rooibos commercially as the seeds were hard to find and impossible to germinate.
Ginsberg convinced Dr Pieter Lafras Nortier, a medical doctor (and amateur horticulturalist) and Olof Bergh (a local farmer) to get involved in large-scale production. Bergh was already harvesting a large amount of wild rooibos on his farm in the Pakhuis Mountains in the Cedarberg.
Dr Nortier collected seeds in the Pakhuis Mountains and in a large valley called Grootkloof and cultivated the first plants on his farm, Eastside at Clanwilliam. The tiny seeds were very difficult to come by. Dr Nortier paid the local villagers £5 per matchbox of seeds brought to him.
An aged Khoi woman found an unusual seed source: having chanced upon ants dragging seeds, she followed them back to their nest and, on breaking it open, found a granary of seeds. We now know that many seeds have a fleshy appendage called an elaiosome. Ants will carry the seeds off to their nests, where they store the seeds and eat the elaiosomes without harming the seeds. The ants effectively distribute the seeds and “plant” them safely underground until the conditions are right for germination.
Dr Nortier’s research was ultimately successful and by the 1930s he could show all the local farmers how to germinate their own seeds. The secret lay in scarifying the seed pods. He 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 now accepted as the father of the rooibos industry. Thanks to his research, rooibos tea became an iconic national beverage and then a globalised commodity. Rooibos production is today the economic mainstay of the Clanwilliam district.
About half of rooibos is sold locally – about 6 000 to 7 000 tonnes. The balance is exported to more than 30 countries, including Germany, the Netherlands, Japan, the UK and US.
Today, rooibos plantations cover 57 000 hectares of arable land. This is almost double that of a decade ago as more farmers, especially those in the Swartland region, have cleared existing grain farmland to make way for rooibos, which is more drought-resistant.
The rooibos industry currently employs an estimated 8 000 farmworkers, and additional employment is created in upstream activities, such as processing, packaging and retailing.
Next week we’ll look at buchu and honeybush and what makes all three of these fynbos species so desirable in the health and other industries.
About the Author
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