Over 300 years ago, the local San – a nomadic tribe who roamed the Cederberg in search of food, water and shelter, and whose history is forever etched in rock art found in the area’s many caves – were the first to discover the delicious, healing tea made from the rooibos plant. They cut the plant’s fine, needle-like leaves, bruised them with wooden mallets and left to dry in the sun. When cut and fermented, the leaves of the Rooibos plant turn a rich orangey-red colour, and it is this distinctive colour which led to the Afrikaans name ‘rooibos’, meaning ‘red bush’.
Rooibos grows only
in the mountainous Cederberg region
of South Africa’s Western Cape,
and nowhere else in the world.
Four hours (approximately 250-kilometres) north of Cape Town and measuring 110-kilometres (approximately 60 miles) in radius, the Cederberg forms part of The Cape Floral Kingdom: the smallest yet richest of only six floral kingdoms in the world. Converging currents of the Indian and Atlantic Oceans – which meet at the tip of Africa – render this area an environmentally unique and highly biodiverse region with plant species, like Rooibos, growing here and nowhere else.
The Cederberg is an area world-renowned for its extraordinary rock formations, ancient San rock art (dating back hundreds of years) and its brilliant carpet of wildflowers that blankets the region every year during the start of spring.
The area takes its name from the Clanwilliam Cedar tree, which, at one time, forested the area but, today, faces threat of extinction.
A sturdy plant, Rooibos has adapted to the region’s coarse, rocky soil and hot, dry summers. In addition to a network of roots just below the soil surface, it has a long taproot that grows as deep as 3m to reach moisture in the ground throughout the dry summer.
Altitude, soil chemistry, microclimates and surrounding vegetation all affect and contribute to the quality of Rooibos harvested. Superior quality Rooibos that delivers on ultimate taste, colour, aroma, and retains its genetic integrity is grown in natural conditions in which the plant thrives.
The harvested Rooibos is processed in two different ways, producing two types of tea. The green leaves and stems are either bruised and fermented or immediately dried to prevent oxidation.
Owing to commercialization and growing global demand of rooibos, Rooibos is grown at varying altitudes, including low altitudes, in sandy soil, which makes it easier to mechanize the growing and harvesting process.
Rooibos that retains its genetic integrity grows only (and naturally) at higher altitude in very rocky soil composition. In temperate conditions, indigenous vegetation is a natural indicator of deep, stony soil in which Rooibos plants typically flourish.
Before planting, rooibos lands lay fallow for three years. During this time, the soil is turned once a year and no fertilisers or chemicals are used in the process. At the end of summer, the first rains indicate the ripe time to plant seeds, when a new season begins after harvest.
For the first year, plants are not harvested but ‘topped’, allowing each plant to grow into a healthier, fuller bush.
After this initial pruning, Rooibos grows without interference until harvesting begins two years after planting.
In summer, harvesting begins first thing in the morning. Bright green Rooibos leaves are cut by hand with sickles, bundled into sheaves and transported down the mountain to the cutting facility.
Cutting Rooibos begins in the afternoon. Sheaves of harvested Rooibos are fed into a cutting machine. Using a fast blade, a machine cuts and shoots short, green Rooibos into a large trailer bin. The cut Rooibos is then released on a tea drying court, and laid in a long, shallow heap down its centre. The heap is then watered and left to dry in the 40°C summer heat.
Once watered, heat builds up in the Rooibos heap, forcing a light fermentation process. Almost instantly, the leaves transform in colour from bright green to a dark red-brown. The heap is steam-rolled three times – squeezing moisture from the tea, which is then left to sweat overnight.
If it’s a particularly good batch, bees will be very pleased. A sign of its sweetness is when all you can hear are bees, collecting nectar from the rooibos heap.
The next morning, a custom-made spreader shoots the fermented Rooibos – now red in colour – across the court, where it is left to dry in the sun until noon.
It is then collected, packed into bags and sent to be steam-sterilised.