It is one of the miracle plants of the world, and has been used as a medicine for perhaps thousands of years. Today it is consumed my millions all over the world as a refreshing tea. It is used in the preparation of natural cosmetics, skin care products and as a basis for medicines. It is rich in anti-oxidants, has a calming effect on the nervous system, has strong anti-inflammatory as well as anti-allergic properties, assists the body in blocking the production of cholesterol. It contains no caffeine, very little tannin and a wide variety of minerals, albeit in small quantities.
This is Rooibos – Aspalahtus linearis – endemic to the Clanwilliam / Cedarberg area.
Today Rooibos is cultivated in plantations over large areas around Clanwilliam and Van Rhynsdorp as well as in the Piketberg / Aurora area. Up to about 55 – 60 years ago plantations were unknown. When it was harvesting time – late summer and autumn – the farmers used to go into the veld to harvest the Rooibos growing wild.
But why does it only grow in certain areas? To answer this question one must have some understanding of the fynbos biome. Endemism (plants only growing in certain areas or locations) is quite common among fynbos plants. The basis of this phenomenon is that the soil is very poor in nutrients, especially phosphorus and nitrogen and many plant species have adopted a survival strategy associated with micro-organisms in the soil. The presence of certain forms of micro organisms in a particular area is largely determined by topography and climate, and even micro climate, as well as the available nutrients in the soil. Many of these micro-organisms convert minerals like nitrogen and phosphorus to soluble forms which plants can utilise. In return the plant provides the micro-organisms with carbon which is freely available via sun energy. Thus, Rooibos requires not only certain soil types and climate, but also specific micro-organisms.
Cultivation of Rooibos is based on a six year cycle as the plants live on average for six years. At any given point in time there are plantations which are one year old, others two years and so on. After six years the plants are removed and the area then planted with lupines (two years) and oats for four years. After six years of lupines and oats, the Rooibos seedlings are transplanted from the nursery into the plantations. The seeds are sown in specially prepared beds in the open in March, and by middle July they are about 15 cm tall and ready to be transplanted. This transplanting can be nerve wrecking as this can only happen if the soil is wet and the weather cool – preferably rainy.
Rooibos, like many other perennial fynbos plants, only grows during the early and midsummer months and become dormant from about February. While the plants are actively growing, the new twigs have a distinct green colour. When the plants stop growing, the twigs turn red from the lower parts upwards. When more than 90% of the twigs have turned red, the plant is ripe. That is when the tea should be harvested because that is when the best quality tea is produced. However, most farmers start harvesting earlier. Only a few, as on the Groenkol Rooibos Tea Estate, wait for the tea to turn ripe. The reason for this is that after harvesting, the tea is cut into short pieces and then goes through a process of oxidation which is a wet process. The following day the tea has to dry in the sun. As long as typical summer and early autumn weather with high temperatures and low humidity persists, drying of the tea is easy and quick, but after the first real winter rain has fallen, the temperature drops and the humidity increases and then drying can becomes problematic as there is the possibility of mould growth which renders the tea useless. As no one can be sure when the tea will turn ripe and when the first winter rain will fall, waiting for the tea to turn ripe is a risk.
Harvesting of Rooibos is traditionally done by hand, using sickles. However, the late Mr. Oubaas Engelbrecht of Groenkol Rooibos Tea Estate, developed and built a mechanical harvester which proved to be such a success that many other farmers have placed orders for these harvesters. When harvesting the top ± 60% of the bush is cut off and taken to the processing plant. After being cut into short pieces, the tea is placed in long heaps (about 70cm x 80cm wide) where it is bruised. Then water is added. A rotavator then mixes the tea and the water in such a way that the mixture is well aerated. This ensures that as much oxygen as possible is trapped in the mixture to enhance the oxidation process. This process takes place at night, and early the following morning the tea is spread out on the drying pad to dry. Under normal summer conditions the tea will dry in one day.
On the Groenkol Rooibos Tea Estate tea harvested from the various sections of the farm is kept separate, and after drying, is blended and pumped into 500 kg bulk bags. It is then placed in storage for ± 18 months as it was found that good quality tea is very much like red wine. Allow it to rest and it will mature and improve in quality. This estate has its own processing plant and packaging facilities and it markets only its own tea – more that 90% of which is exported to many countries.
In the processing plant the tea first goes through a series of sieves to remove the unwanted material – everything from rough stick to fine dust. Then it is sterilised before being packaged in 18 kg bags for export. A small percentage of tea on the estate (about 10%) is packaged in sachets and under the estate’s brand name, African Dawn.
A fair percentage of the material removed through the sifting process is bought by companies that extract the oil from the material which is then used in the manufacturing of cosmetics, skin care products, toiletries and as a basis for medicines.
Visitors to the area who want to see what Rooibos is all about can go to Rooibos Ltd in Clanwilliam where they will be shown a short video. Alternatively they can contact Elandsberg Eco Tourism on the Groenkol Rooibos Tea Estate for a safari tour of the plantations and the processing plant.