Ecology

Rooibos in flower.jpg

The Rooibos Route runs through the heart of rooibos country. Rooibos grows naturally in the sandstone soils of the western mountains and plateaus of the Cape mountains. In this area rooibos was used by the Khoi and San for centuries before European settlement.

During the 17th and 18th centuries, European travellers and botanists visiting the Cederberg region in South Africa commented on the abundance of plants that could be utilized for medicinal purposes. In 1772, Swedish botanist Carl Thunberg noted that "the country people made tea" from rooibos.

It seems that rooibos was gradually adopted by the settlers as well. In these times the people of Wupperthal would climb mountains to harvest the wild rooibos plants.  The leaves and fine stems of the plant would be placed in hessian bags, carried down from the slopes and packed onto the backs of donkeys to transport them to the village.  The leaves were then chopped with axes and bruised with hammers, before being left to dry in the sun.

A Russian Jewish settler by name of Benjamin Ginsberg was the first person to develop rooibos as a commercial product. He had previously been exposed to the tea trade, and in 1904 he conducted various experiments with the plant, perfecting a method for the curing of rooibos. Later, during the 1930s, Ginsberg appointed a local doctor and scientist Le Fras Naude to investigate cultivation of the plant.

It was common knowledge that rooibos seeds were hard to find, and this was a serious constraint. The plants were known to flower in the early summer, with each tiny flower forming a little seed pod.  When ripe, the pods burst open and scattered the seeds widely around the plant, making it difficult to collect the seed. Local farmers and villagers were enlisted to collect the elusive seeds. One Khoi woman consistently collected more seeds than everyone else, and eventually shared her secret:  she had noticed ants carrying the seed back to their nests, and had followed their trails and broken into their nests, discovering an “ant granary” of rooibos seed.

Commercial rooibos cultivation was developed and the rooibos seeds collecting process has been modified. Although many local farmers relied on exploiting the work of the ants for collecting seeds, rooibos seeds today are collected by a process whereby the collector lifts the sandy soil and seeds from around the plants and sieves out the coarser and finer particles using two different sieves. Following this, the seed is washed in a panning process that removes the remaining sand particles.

Today the industry is largely based on cultivated rooibos of the Nortier variety, which was first selected by Le Fras Nortier in the Pakhuis area. This accounts for more than 98% of the rooibos that is harvested and sold. However, four different varieties of wild rooibos are still harvested along the Rooibos Heritage Route in accordance with ancient tradition:

In the Suid Bokkeveld the so-called “bossietee” is a hardy re-sprouting shrub that lives for more than 50 years, and re-sprouts from its roots after fire. It makes a rich and delicious wild rooibos tea that is marketed by the Heiveld Co-operative.

In the Wupperthal area people harvest “rankiestee”, which as its name suggests is a prostrate re-sprouting plant that grows close to the ground, as well as a re-seeding variety that is very similar to the cultivated “Nortier” variety but for its red and yellow flower. In addition, the more rare “tree-type” of rooibos grows in wetter areas such as Kleinvlei, and also produces an excellent tea.

Rooibos (Aspalathus linearis (Burm. fil.) R. Dahlgr. ssp. linearis) is a member of one of the largest Fynbos genera and has a rich history of taxonomic classificationthat spans more than two centuries. The evolution of its classification is recorded in detail in Dahlgren's 1968 publication, Revision of the genus Aspalathus II: the species with ericoid and pinoid leaflets. Its historical taxonomic treatment is perhaps a reflection of how rooibos has fascinated taxonomists since its original recordings in the 17th and 18th centuries.

 Dahlgren (1968Dahlgren 1968) tentatively suggests that rooibos may first have been recorded in 1686 by Ray (Rajus). However, it is uncertain whether this or Plukenet's 1691 and1700 recordings of the species are indeed of Aspalathus linearis as it is known today, and not of species in sister genus Lebeckia (). The earliest reliable written accounts of the use of the plant by the indigenous Khoi-Khoi of the Cape was by N.L. Burman who is credited with being the first to offer a valid report of the species in 1768 (Dahlgren 1968Dahlgren 1968). Carl Thunberg similarly described its use in 1772, though as Psolarea linearis (; Morton 1983).

 Rooibos has since gone by many names, sometimes as a result of mistaken identity and sometimes as a result of changes to the classifications systems. The species was assigned its final taxonomic classification as Aspalathus linearis subsp. linearis by Dahlgren in 1963.

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