The life-giving, world-changing power of red bush tea
Cam Loeschmann // Columnist
In the Cederburg region of South Africa’s Western Cape Province, rooibos and other members of the Faboideae subfamily have grown for generations.
Rooibos has appeared in the news throughout the last few years—though you may have missed it due to our current world circumstances. In late 2019, the Khoi and San peoples of South Africa won a monumental legal battle that named them as holders of traditional knowledge that fuels the enormous, global rooibos industry. “[This] agreement recognizes that the rooibos and its use is part of the San and Khoi people of South Africa’s traditional knowledge, and that its exploitation and commercialization by the rooibos industry should come with adequate compensation,” says the World Justice Project.
According to the Mail & Guardian, representatives of the Khoi and San have been fighting for recognition of their knowledge since at least 2010, but given that Dutch settlers have been poking around in South Africa since at least the 1700s, this battle is clearly like an iceberg that we only see the tip of today. About 300 white commercial farmers cultivate 93 per cent of the planted area of Cederburg’s unique rooibos farmland.
Let’s back up for a moment.
The subfamily Faboideae is related to legumes and is native to a few specific places in South Africa, where the summers get hot and dry enough for these picky plants to thrive. The Cyclopia genus is also known as honeybush, and the Aspalathus genus is known as rooibos. As brewed beverages, they are very similar. Both have dusty-red coloured leaves, a sweet fragrance, and a deep red colour when they hit the water. Their flavours are also similar, although rooibos tends to taste more earthy and nutty, while honeybush—like the name suggests—brews a little bit sweeter, with a fruity or floral note. They are both naturally caffeine-free, making them excellent nighttime brews.
The Khoi and San people have presumably been making use of these plants’ incredible host of health benefits since time immemorial, but due to the oral nature of pre-colonial history and systemic oppression of non-white people in South Africa, there is much that is simply not known. Ben-Erik van Wyk and Boris Gorelik in the South African Journal of Botany write that, “Statements that rooibos tea is a traditional drink of Khoi-descended people of the Cedarberg (and “poor whites”) are correct but we have not been able to trace this tradition further back than the last quarter of the 19th Century.”
There are multiple reasons to drink rooibos and honeybush infusions. The main and most tangible benefit of rooibos and honeybush is that they are warming and restorative while being naturally caffeine-free. This makes them safe for any age, at any time of day, for those with even the strongest sensitivity to caffeine. Decaffeinated black or green teas from the tea plant will still retain an intangibly tiny amount of caffeine—Teadog says usually less than 2 per cent—due to the way caffeine is stored among the plant’s molecules. Rooibos and honeybush, as well as most others labelled “herbal tea”, however, have no caffeine content whatsoever. These plants need no harsh decaffeination process and suffer no modifications to flavour.
Ariane Lang for Healthline evaluated several health claims of honeybush. Among other, less substantiated claims, honeybush held up in scientific trials that tested the benefits of its high antioxidant content. These included relief for diabetes, bone loss, some types of cancer, and effects of sunburn and aging on the skin. Mary Jane Brown, also for Healthline, found similar benefits in rooibos.
“Antioxidant” has turned into a bit of a buzzword in the last few years, but these chemical compounds are genuinely beneficial for human consumption. Lone oxygen atoms in our cells, called “free radicals,” can cause damage if not neutralized—and that is where antioxidants come in. Dark fruits, nuts and whole grains are packed full of these essential chemicals.
Beyond what has been studied in lab conditions, the anecdata would suggest that rooibos and honeybush cure everything from insomnia and eczema to the common cold. “Rooibos runs in my veins,” says one of the people interviewed in Rooibos Restitution, a documentary exploring the historical context for South Africa’s landmark decision to monetarily compensate the Khoi and San people for their traditional knowledge of these plants.
It is incredibly important that we have historical and political context for the foods we eat and the beverages we drink. For everything that we take for granted, there is probably a people group that pioneered its use and was exploited to keep overhead costs low. Knowing who brings you the foods and drinks you love is the difference between a mindless first-world consumer and a thoughtful global citizen.
Take a moment to consider the origins of things you take for granted. Who works the hardest to bring them to you, and who makes the majority of the profit? None of us can say our impact on this Earth is wholly positive but let’s make sure our impact isn’t completely negative, either.