Rooibos (Aspalathus linearis) is well known as a legume that grows wild and naturally in the Cederberg and surrounding areas of southwestern South Africa. The second part of the name (linearis) refers to the shape of the needle-like leaves from which the tea is produced. Many local names for the plant are still used by the older inhabitants of the area, including Koopman’s tea, naaldtee (“needle tea”), bossiestee (“bush tea”) and veld tea.
Bushes vary in size from half a meter to 2 meters tall. Wild rooibos is harvested by hand, usually in the summer months between January and April. The flowers of wild rooibos are entirely yellow in the Suid Bokkeveld area (like cultivated rooibos), but in the Wupperthal area, the yellow flowers feature shades of red and purple on their lower parts. Rooibos is adapted to survive in habitats that experience hot and very dry summers. Fine leaves minimize moisture roots and long tap roots access water deep underground. Wild rooibos can re-sprout from its roots after a fire, if the fire has not burned too intensely, which normally kills the cultivated variety.
Traditionally, after harvesting, the leaves and stems of wild rooibos bushes were then chopped into small pieces with a hatchet. The tea was then bruised to release the flavor. The finely chopped tea was placed on a smooth natural rock surface to sweat under a burlap sack, and then spread out to dry in the sun. The finished tea was then bagged and stored for future use. The same process is used today in Wupperthal and in the Suid Bokkeveld, with a few modern adaptations.
These days a machine is used to chop the leaves finely, and the green tea is bruised by a tractor and then dried on a concrete surface.
Rooibos has been an invaluable traditional medicine of South Africans for centuries. Rooibos tea was first discovered by the Khoisan, the indigenous peoples of western South Africa. They harvested the green plant in the wild, chopped it up and fermented it to produce the red tea that only recently has become world famous. Rooibos is produced from the leaves and stalks of rooibos plants. If a wild rooibos plant is harvested in a sustainable manner (harvesting just 50-70% of the upper leaves and shoots), the plant is stimulated to re-grow. In other words, harvesting can stimulate the production of wild rooibos. On the other hand, unsustainable harvesting practices can have a negative effect on the plant’s production. Bushes less than 3 years old should not be harvested. Today, about 10,000 – 15,000 kg are harvested per year, used for home consumption and sold on a limited scale.
Although cultivated rooibos is known around the world, wild rooibos has been harvested for domestic use by countless generations of the members of the rural communities in southwestern South Africa. Local people remember being sent into the veld by their parents to harvest the wild tea by hand. Today, the natural habitat is under extreme threat due to conversion to agricultural land or other development. Areas where rooibos grows wild are being planted with the cultivated variety to create plantations. Inappropriate harvesting methods also threaten the future of the plant. Much of the remaining bushes are also within proclaimed native reserves where no harvesting is permitted.
Photos — Paola Viesi