Honeybush – The Other South African Tisane

Honeybush is closely related to rooibos which also grows in South Africa

Honeybush, also known as Cyclopia, of South Africa

Rooibos is not the only tisane which calls South Africa home. While rooibos has captured the most attention, and been subject to at least two attempts to trademark the name, honeybush is a very close cousin. Honeybush is used as a base for a wide variety of products and can be used in cooking. It is also caffeine free making it popular in the afternoon. Although similar to rooibos in many ways, it is has a bit sweeter taste providing an equally delicious infusion.

Honeybush Production

There are many similarities between honeybush and rooibos. Not only are they both from South Africa but they both come from the Fynbos region. Specifically they come from the Western Cape, South Africa, around the Cederburg Mountains. The product is chopped into fine pieces and normally fermented before packaging and shipment. As a variation, green honeybush is produced without the fermentation step. Like rooibos it also comes from the legume family, though this family is quite large and includes 16,000 others.

Though there are many similarities, there is a large difference in cultivation.  Most honeybush is harvested from 20+ species of wild cyclopia bushes. About 70% is harvested by hand in remote regions of South Africa with about 30% coming from commercially planted bushes.  Global demand from the Germany, the US, and other locations is increasing however, so this plant is increasingly planted and harvested from commercial plantations.

History of Honeybush

South African castle built by the Dutch East India Company

Dutch East India Company – Castle of Good Hope

Like rooibos this tisane has its roots dating back hundreds of years to consumption by native bushman or Khoisan people. According to the Institute for Traditional Medicine, honeybush infusions have likely been around for hundreds of years. The Dutch “discovered” it while exploring the plants and animals around a fort near what is now Cape Town when it was a stopover for trade between Asia and the Netherlands. The purchase of the Cape Colony by the British and subsequent adoption of English helped further spread knowledge of honeybush and probably rooibos as well.

Honeybush Future

Production of honeybush has been rapidly increasing to meet growing international demand for this tisane. Not only does it make a great base for caffeine free tisane infusions but there is also potential for health benefits as well.  According to the South African Honeybush Tea Association (SAHTA) which formed in 1999, there is a substantial amount of research occurring around potential health benefits from anti-oxidants and other compounds. Its consumption may help prevent cancer or offer alternatives to hormone replacement therapy.  Much still needs to be done to validate these ideas as well as meet existing commercial demand. To satisfy these needs SAHTA also actively works to improve cultivation, biodiversity, and sustainability practices to increase production and ensure continued availability.

Honeybush tea infusions are often consumed straight, although they may also be consumed with milk and sugar. Honeybush blends well with a wide variety of ingredients including ginger, lemon myrtle, lemon grass, fennel, and even caramel pieces. Be sure to have a look at the recipes provided by SAHTA on its website for honeybush tea punch, tarts, and muffins.

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Rooibos: A South African Specialty

Options for tea drinkers abound with green, white, oolong, black and more as we have discussed earlier.  Also well-known are the many tisane blends; be they pure herbals or herbal tea blends.  Rooibos represents another option for an infused tisane and one that is growing in popularity due to its caffeine free nature and mix of anti-oxidants.   Camellia Sinensis naturally has caffeine as a self-defense mechanism, and decaffeinated tea in the U.S is allowed to have up to 5% residual caffeine. The rooibos plant has no caffeine at all.  Rooibos also enjoys significant popularity for the wide variety of anti-oxidants it contains including aspalathin which is only found in rooibos.

Cederberg Mountain Region of South Africa

Cederberg Mountain Region of South Africa

The scientific name for rooibos, which comes from Afrikaans meaning “red bush”, is Aspalathus Linearis.  Coming from the legume family, rooibos is related to beans, peas, clover, and peanuts, though the family also includes over 16,000 other species.  It is a shrub that grows up to 6’ in height with green, needle shaped leaves and yellow flowers.

Rooibos is only grown in one location in the world, the valleys of the Cederberg Mountain region of Western Cape, South Africa, to the north of Cape Town (South African National Biodiversity Institute, 2007).

Rooibos - Aspalathus Linearis

The Rooibos Bush – Aspalathus Linearis

Production of finished rooibos for export comes from both the needle shaped leaves and bits of small stem.  The leaves of the plant and small stems are harvested from January to March, the South African Summer to Fall season.  After harvesting they are cut into small pieces and bruised, similar to the bruising of tea leaves to bring out flavor and encourage oxidation.  After bruising, the leaves are traditionally moistened and allowed to oxidize in piles before drying in thin layers in the sun.  This oxidation process is what produces the deep red-brown color and its sweet, woody taste and aroma.  In much the same way that green tea is produced by preventing the fermentation process, green rooibos is also produced by skipping the fermentation stage and moving straight from cutting to drying in the sun.

Rooibos has been consumed by local Khoisan inhabitants for more than 300 years.  The arriving Dutch settlers to South Africa in the 1700’s started to consume rooibos due to the high cost of imported black tea.  Commercial production began in the 1930’s and more recently its anti-oxidant properties have attracted significant demand, initially from Japan but now from many other countries as well.  In fact, exports have increased over 700% from 1993 to 2003. (Hansen, 2006)

While rooibos is increasing in popularity and is a significant crop for the Western Cape region of South Africa, there are concerns both about the impact of production on the environment as well as the threat to rooibos from climate change.

Regions of South Africa

Western Cape, South Africa with Rooibos Growing Region Highlighted in Yellow

Rooibos comes from one of the most biologically diverse regions of the world and the birthplace of modern humans.  The area has several distinct regions ranging from coastal, to lowland fynbos (shrubs with varied shapes and sizes), and mountains with many others in between. (Fynbos Forum, 2005) The specific region where rooibos is grown recently was designated a World Heritage Site, yet the majority of land is privately owned, so the need for responsible land use and development practices has driven the South African Rooibos Council to develop Right Rooibos, a program to foster sustainable production practices for the industry and support production while protecting the environment.

More recently farmers have noted increasing temperatures and drier conditions, both of which are being attributed to climate change.  This trend, if it continues is expected to make it harder to grow rooibos and eventually could mean the demise of the industry. (Price, 2012)  And since rooibos, thus far, has not been successfully cultivated anywhere else in the world, the end of rooibos in South Africa would mean the end of rooibos globally.

For now, we continue to enjoy rooibos and wish the best for sustainable farming practices under the Right Rooibos program.  We love rooibos straight or blended with more traditional teas and herbals.  How about you?  Have you tried rooibos?

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Works Cited

Fynbos Forum. (2005). Ecosystem Guidelines for Environmental Assessment in the Western Cape. Sounth Africa.

Hansen, T. (2006). Sustainable Rooibos Initiative. Greater Cederberg Biodiversity Cooridor & South African Rooibos Council.

Price, C. (2012, February 28). Climate change threat to rooibos tea. Retrieved February 12, 2014, from Mail & Guardian: http://mg.co.za/article/2012-02-28-climate-change-threat-to-rooibos-tea/

South African National Biodiversity Institute. (2007, June). Aspalathus linearis. Retrieved February 10, 2014, from PlantZAfrica.com: http://www.plantzafrica.com/plantab/aspallinearis.htm

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