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Rooibos Plant

The Aspalathus plant group, part of the legume family, and to which Rooibos belongs, consists of more than 200 species which occur only in South Africa and of which only the Aspalathus linearis species has an economic value. Had it not been for the mountain inhabitants of the Western Cape, this species would today have been known merely as one of the many indigenous shrub-like bushes found in these mountains.

The plant is a shrub-like bush with a central, smooth-barked main stem. Near the soil surface the stem subdivides into a number of strong offshoots, followed by delicate side branches each bearing, singly or in clusters, soft, needle-like leaves some ten centimetres in length.

The plant's height at maturity varies from 1,0 to 1,5 metres in its natural state, while the height of harvested plants varies from 0,5 to 1,5 metres, depending on the age of the plant, or the climate and soil conditions in the area of production.

Although the plant requires a production area with winter rainfall, its active growth only starts in spring, increasing towards midsummer after which growth declines. The plant is usually covered with small, yellow, pea-shaped flowers during October. The flowers each produce a small legume containing a single, very small, light yellow, hard-shelled, dicotyledonous seed.

Rooibos seed is by nature very hard-shelled. The seed is scrubbed with mechanical scourers to increase the germination potential from approximately 25 - 30% to 85 - 95%.

Rooibos seed is a precious article, simply because each legume bears only one seed which pops open and shoots out as soon as it is ripe. For this reason the seed was extremely expensive before it was discovered that ants were its main harvesters. Today some farmers still collect seed from anthills, but more commonly by sifting the sand around the plants. One kilogram of seed yields approximately eight hectares of Rooibos.

The Rooibos plant has adapted well to the harsh conditions of the Cedarberg region, where temperatures drop to zero degrees centigrade during the winter months and rise to a blistering 48 degrees centigrade at the height of summer.

The winter rains vary between as little as 180 mm to 500mm for the year. No irrigation is used and the rooibos plant is often subjected to severe drought conditions. The survival mechanism of this hardy bush is its tap root that digs down 3 m or more into the well-drained, cool, sandy soil that has a high acidity level.

Rooibos is a unique product from a unique area. South Africa's Western Cape is home to a vast number of plant species, which thrive only in 'micro climates', of which the beautiful Cedarberg mountain area, 200km north of Cape Town is one. It is only here that Rooibos (Aspalathus linearis) grows in its natural state, in an area of Mediterranean rainfall and coarse sandy soil.

Everywhere against the mountain slopes in valleys and on top of plateaux or plains, there are open, arable fields, where Rooibos is grown at a varying altitude of approximately 450 m above sea level.

Centuries ago, the nomadic Khoi and San people harvested the fragrant Rooibos bush, crushing the leaves with their primitive tools and leaving them in heaps to ferment before drying them in the sun. Today, plants are cultivated rather than collected in the wild. Vast improvements in production technology and stringent quality control ensure a superior quality product every step of the way, from seed to retailers' shelves.

The small seeds are planted from February to March in well-prepared seed beds. Thorough and regular wetting is applied to ensure maximum germination. After four to six days, two cotyledons appear above the ground, later followed by needlelike leaves. During June to August the plants, which have already reached a height of 10-20cm, are transplanted into plantations in neat rows. During the younger stages, effective insect and weed control is applied to ensure the highest establishment percentage.

No fungicides used and pesticides are employed sparingly and only when necessary. A certain percentage of the total Rooibos production is organically grown under supervision of internationally recognised organic certification companies. Eighteen months after planting, the Rooibos plant is pruned for the first time and thereafter is harvested annually by cutting of the branches 50cm above the ground. These cuttings are neatly bound into bundles and transported to the processing yards. The sheaves are then fed into special cutting machines, which maintain a uniform cutting length to ensure a neat appearance of the final product. The Rooibos is then bruised between rollers to trigger the important chemical process, fermentation. After proper airing the Rooibos is left in low heaps to ferment. A process of enzymatic oxidation takes place during which the product changes from green to the characteristic amber colour and develops the distinctive flavour and sweet aroma of Rooibos.

Following fermentation, Rooibos is spread thinly over large drying yards to dry in the hot African sun, after which it is sucked up by special vacuum machines