In the Cederberg region of the Western Cape grows one of the country’s most famous exports, Rooibos. This healthy herb has been infused in everything from skincare products and ice cream to undeniably its most popular form, Rooibos tea. But even the most ardent fans of Rooibos may not be aware of the rich history and incredible benefits of this homegrown South African product.
“Rooibos has always been a popular tea among South Africans, but the growth in the international market has seen a major spike in the number of Rooibos consumers,” explained Candice Sessions, Laager Marketing Manager. “The Rooibos tea industry has grown faster than any other teas in the last decade because of the incredible taste and long-lasting health benefits of Rooibos.”
The South African Rooibos Council (SARC), which was established in 2005 to responsibly promote Rooibos, has compiled a comprehensive background on the herb and shared several informative facts.
In bygone days, people of the Cederberg region called Rooibos naaldetee - needle tea - because of its sharp thin leaves springing out of the slender branches.
Rooibos is hardy and can withstand drought because it stores nutrients underground in its lignotuber - a woody thickening around the stem. Because the leaves are so narrow, they can retain the scarce moisture in the searing heat.
Despite its name, Rooibos is not a true tea but rather a herb. The tea is a herbal infusion known as a tisane.
Rooibos is only grown in one region in the whole world – the Cederberg Mountains in the Western Cape. This region provides the Rooibos plant (aspalathus linearis) with the perfect set of conditions it needs to thrive.
Rooibos is a major contributor to the South African economy. It’s estimated there are more than 500 Rooibos farmers with around 5 000 people working on Rooibos tea farms or processing plants.
The Rooibos tea plantations cover twice as much land as they did in the mid-1990s, with expectation that they will cover around 60 000 hectares in future.
In an average year, the Rooibos industry produces around 18 000 tonnes - enough to make over seven billion cups of tea!
Rooibos makes up around a third of the South African tea market. Rooibos is served at most cafés, restaurants and hotels, with a variety of Rooibos brands and products found in every grocery or supermarket.
One of SARC’s early achievements was attaining Geographical Indication (GI) status for their Rooibos tea to protect the name internationally in the interests of the domestic industry. Other examples of products with GI status include Champagne, Parma ham, Darjeeling tea, Parmesan cheese, and Kalamata olives.
Rooibos is being used extensively in the skincare industry. When asked about her beauty routine, South African-born Hollywood star Charlize Theron says that she favours natural ingredients from her native country, like marula oil and Rooibos tea to keep her skin ‘hydrated and glowy’.
During former president Nelson Mandela’s 18-year imprisonment on Robben Island, he recounted that Rooibos tea had been his favourite beverage.
In 2019, an Access and Benefit-sharing (ABS) agreement was established between the Rooibos Industry, represented by the SA Rooibos Council (SARC) and the Khoi-Khoi and San, represented by the National Khoi-San Council (NKC) and the South African San Council (SASC). This agreement will see the Khoi-Khoi and San communities benefit from the commercialisation of Rooibos.
Laager pioneered the concept of a Rooibos brand specifically geared towards children in the early 2000s. Laager Tea4Kidz is available in five flavours with all the associated benefits of Rooibos, including boosting immunity and relieving symptoms of allergies.
Some health benefits of Rooibos
One of the biggest reasons that Rooibos tea continues to gain popularity – beyond its great taste – is its many health benefits. In 1968, Annekie Theron discovered her youngest child would finally settle after drinking Rooibos tea, despite suffering from stomach issues for years. Theron discovered that Rooibos tea was able to soothe colicky babies.
She recalled: “It all started in 1968 when I discovered by chance that Rooibos had therapeutic value. Until that stage, nothing unusual about Rooibos had been known. There was no question of a frame of reference that in any way would shed light on Rooibos.”
Further research has revealed a number of other health benefits including:
- Rooibos tea is a good source of antioxidants and is the only known source of a potent antioxidant aspalathin, which could play a role in combating several lifestyle diseases.
- Rooibos tea is naturally caffeine-free, making it suitable for children, infants, and breastfeeding mothers.
- Rooibos tea has proven cancer-fighting properties in animal research studies, and exciting new research points towards the role that Rooibos can play in promoting heart health and preventing diabetes.
- Rooibos tea has low amounts of tannin which is the bitter-tasting plant polyphenols that bind and precipitate proteins, interfering with iron absorption in the body.
- No negative side effects of Rooibos have ever been recorded.