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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Tisanes and Herbals

Tisanes and herbals are often referred to as tea, however these drinks normally do not contain any camellia sinensis (tea).  Instead they are made from seeds, leaves, roots, flowers, bark, fruits and may also be referred to as infusions or botanicals.  There are a huge variety of tisane and herbal drinks since it seems almost anything that is safe for human consumption can be infused (soaked in hot water) or decocted (heated in water to a boil allowing evaporation of much of the water).

Tisanes and herbals are consumed around the world offering a great many tastes, aromas, and flavors.  Some originated many hundreds or thousands of years ago while many are more modern attempts to offer new tastes or capitalize on popular fads.

Just a Few Tisanes & Herbals

Organic Raspberry Rooibos Tisane, Organic Red Raspberry Leaf, Organic Hibiscus, Organic Calendula

Adirondack Berries – A Rooibos Based Tisane

Rooibos has been consumed in South Africa for hundreds of years by native people and European settlers.  Native to the Fynbos region of South Africa’s Southwestern Cedarburg Mountains, Rooibos is a tisane produced from finely chopped Aspalathus linearis of the legume family.  This drink enjoys growing popularity around the world and makes a great base for a naturally caffeine free drink.

Dried Hibiscus in Aswan Souk

Dried Hibiscus for Karkade or Hibiscus Tea

Karkade, also known as Hibiscus Tea, and a myriad other names, is consumed around the world in places as diverse as Australia, the Middle East, the Caribbean and parts of Asia.  It features a tart, cranberry like taste and deep red color.  The first consumption as a drink is difficult to pin down but it is noted as being edible as far back as the late 1600’s.  More recently one can thank Celestial Seasonings for increasing awareness of this drink, marketed as “Red Zinger” starting in 1972.

Liang Cha is a Chinese herb tisane originating from Guangzhou Province.  Literally translating to “cold tea” it is thought to literally cool the body temperature which can be a big plus in the summer months in this part of China.  That said, this herb tea seems to have a great many variations though Chrysanthemum seems to be a common name attributed to it. (Guangzhou.chn.info, 2014)

Paspanguwa, also known as “Five Potions” comes from Sri Lanka and is considered to be an Ayurvedic remedy to tread colds and fever.  In fact, the Sri Lankan Government setup the Sri Lankan Ayurvedic Drug Company in 1969 offering, among other things, Paspanguwa which it considers a drug (Fernando, 2009).  The name “five-potions” comes from the five ingredients (though others are often added), Mollugo cerviana, Solanum virginianum, Coriander seed, Long pepper, and Ginger.  It is often served with a sweetner.

Glass Jar of Kombucha

Kombucha Mature by Mgarten, CC BY-SA 3.0

Kombucha, unlike the other drinks discussed, is actually made from the tea leaf, and is not an infusion or decoction.  Instead, it is sweetened black tea that has been fermented with bacteria and yeast.  Originating in Northeastern China in the 1900’s, Kobucha became popular as a health drink although such claims haven’t been established and indeed the drink, when improperly prepared may cause severe side effects and death (Centers for Disease Control, 1995).

Summing Up – Tisanes & Herbals

In many cases tisanes and herbals became popular for their stimulant, relaxant, or sedative properties.  These days many different tisane and herbal drinks are being consumed for perceived health benefits; everything from curing colds to curing cancer and everything in between.  However, the health claims attached to most tisanes and herbal drinks have not been validated through rigorous testing and, since many are considered neither food nor drug, they are not routinely evaluated by the FDA or USDA.  Further, no data had been provided to the FDA as of 2003 to support any claims of health benefits from tisanes or herbals (Nass, 2003).

From our perspective, while there may well be health benefits to some herbal and tisane infusions, there may also be risks, especially from high consumption and drug interactions.  Therefore, we prefer focus instead on the historical and cultural background behind tisanes, yet consume only a limited few.

Works Cited
Centers for Disease Control. (1995, 12 08). Unexplained Severe Illness Possibly Associated with Consumption of Kombucha Tea — Iowa, 1995. Atlanta, GA, US.

Encyclopedia Britannica Company. (2014, 06 17). Miriam-Webster. Retrieved from Tisane: http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/tisane

Fernando, N. M. (2009, 09 18). Sri Lanka Ayurveda Drugs Corporation – four decades of progress. Sri Lanka.

Guangzhou.chn.info. (2014, 06 18). Cantonese Liang Cha, Herb Tea. Retrieved from Guangzhou.chn.info: http://guangzhou.chn.info/dining/liang-cha/herb-tea.html

Nass, R. (2003). Is the Health Food Store and Oxymoron. Retrieved from Naturally Dangerous: Surprising Facts About Food, Health, and the Environment: http://www.stanford.edu/~jpc/Chapter3.htm#_Herbal_Teas_Are

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