The History of Rooibos

Imagine sitting around a campfire sipping a cup of steaming hot rooibos tea on a cold night, listening to stories from long before you were even born. Unknown pioneering people coming alive in the flickering flame, giving you a renewed appreciation for what is in your hand. Such is the story of rooibos.

An accidental discovery almost 250 years ago by Swedish naturalist Carl Thunberg, led to rooibos tea becoming known as the popular beverage it is today. During his travels in Africa in 1772, he observed the indigenous Khoisan people using naturally wild-growing ‘Rooibos’/’Red Bush’ as a beverage. Read more about the Rooibos Access and Benefit Agreement here, which recognises the Khoikhoi and San peoples as the traditional knowledge holders to the uses of rooibos.

Rooibos leaves and stems were collected and bunched into hessian bags that were carried down the steep slopes on the backs of donkeys. Their basic processing methods of cutting the rooibos leaves and stems, bruising, ‘sweating’, and finally spreading it out to dry in the sun, are still in use today, just more refined and mechanised.

Rooibos tea became a cheap alternative for early Dutch settlers to the expensive black tea from the East.

Around 1930 a local Clanwilliam doctor and nature lover Le Fras Nortier became interested in ‘wild bush tea’ and started experimenting with Rooibos. As rooibos seeds are extremely small and difficult to find, he asked the locals, including his patients, to collect seeds for him by searching in the sandy soils. Some even followed ants dragging seeds to their nests, broke open the nests to collect the seeds, always leaving some for the ants to survive. Some seed collectors follow these methods to this day.

While experimenting with ways to propagate the seeds, Nortier discovered that the seeds would only germinate if they were cracked open first (imitating the effect of mountain fires) and succeeded in cultivating the first rooibos plants.

Since then its fruity, sweet taste, and naturally caffeine-free, low tannin status has resulted in rooibos being a cultural icon of South Africa. Surveys conducted in 2005 showed that Rooibos tea was one of the ten most frequently consumed foods in informal settlements in South Africa. Today it has widespread local and international appeal, not just for its unique location and taste, but due to its many excellent health benefits.

Rooibos has now been registered as a geographic indicator (GI) and awarded Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) status by the European Union (Regulation (EU)No 1151/2012), making it the first African food to achieve this status. View the certificate here.