The Story of Rooibos
Rooibos (pronounced “Roy-boss” – Afrikaans for red bush) is obtained from the specially cultivated plant Aspalathus linearis which, in its natural state, is found only in the greater Cederberg region in the Republic of South Africa.
It is a member of the legume family of plants and is used to make a herbal infusion (tisane) and in this form is commonly referred to as rooibos tea. Also called South African red tea, the product has been popular in South Africa for generations and is now enjoyed in many countries.
First reported in 1772 by botanist Carl Thunberg, the Khoisan people of the area had been using rooibos for generations and were aware of its medicinal value. The Dutch settlers to the Cape adopted rooibos as an alternative to black tea, an expensive commodity for the settlers who relied on supply ships from Europe. Until the 19th century, however, Dutch usage of rooibos was minimal.
In 1903, Benjamin Ginsberg (a Russian settler to the Cape and descendant of a famous family) realized the potential of Rooibos and began trading with the local Khoisan people who were harvesting it. He sold his “Mountain Tea” to settlers in the Cape and shortly became the first exporter of rooibos using contacts from the family tea business.
From Experiment to Success
In the 1930’s, Ginsberg convinced a local doctor to experiment with the cultivation of the plant. The attempts were successful, which led Ginsberg to encourage local farmers to cultivate the plant in the hope that it would become a profitable venture. The first attempts at large volume cultivation were a disaster due to the small size of the seeds (they are no larger than a grain of sand), which made them difficult to find and gather. This resulted in the price of the seeds soaring to an astounding 80 pounds sterling per pound (lbs), which was far too expensive for local farmers. Fortunately for Ginsberg, who employed locals to collect the seeds, one woman had found a rather unusual source of supply. While other collectors only brought in matchbox-sized quantities, she continually delivered large bags and was eventually persuaded to share her secret. While searching for the minute seeds one day, she had chanced upon ants dragging them to their nest. She followed their trail back to their nest and, on breaking it open, found a granary.
Rooibos Becoming Famous
Rooibos has increased in popularity in South Africa and since about 2002, has gained considerable momentum in the worldwide market. As of 2007, there are a growing number of brand-name tea companies which sell it either straight-up or as a component in an ever-growing variety of blends.
The popularity of rooibos has also gained from its association with Precious Ramotswe, the Tswana detective in Alexander McCall Smith’s series of novels about The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency. Mma Ramotswe’s favourite drink is Red Bush Tea (Rooibos), which she often promotes as a therapeutic drink to her friends and clients – and hence the readers of the books.
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