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The leaves are used to make a herbal tea that is called by the names: rooibos, bush tea (especially in Southern Africa), or redbush tea (predominantly in Great Britain). The tea has been popular in Southern Africa for generations, but is now consumed in many countries worldwide. It is sometimes spelled rooibosch in accordance with the original Dutch. The tea has a taste and color somewhat similar to hibiscus tea, or an earthy flavor like yerba mate.
The generic name comes from the Greek name aspalathos for Calicotome villosa, which has very similar growth and flowers to the rooibos plant. The specific name of linearis comes from the plant's linear growing structure and needle-like leaves.
Production and processing
Generally, the leaves undergo an oxidation (often termed "fermentation" in common tea processing terminology). This process produces the distinctive reddish-brown colour of rooibos and enhances the flavour. Unoxidised "green" rooibos is also produced, but the more demanding production process for green rooibos (similar to the method by which green tea is produced) makes it more expensive than traditional rooibos. It carries a malty and slightly grassy flavour somewhat different from its red counterpart.
Rooibos tea is commonly prepared in the same manner as black tea and milk and sugar are added to taste. Other methods include a slice of lemon and using honey instead of sugar to sweeten. It is also served as espresso, lattes, cappuccinos or iced tea.
Rooibos tea does not contain caffeine and has low tannin levels compared to black tea or green tea. Rooibos contains polyphenols, including flavanols, flavones, flavanones, dihydrochalcones, aspalathin and nothofagin.
Rooibos grades are largely related to the percentage "needle" or leaf to stem content in the mix. A higher leaf content results in a darker liquor, richer flavour and less "dusty" aftertaste. The high-grade rooibos is exported and does not reach local markets, with major consumers being the EU, particularly Germany, where it is used in creating flavoured blends for loose-leaf tea markets.
In 1772, Swedish naturalist Carl Thunberg noted, "the country people made tea" from a plant related to rooibos or redbush. Traditionally, the local people would climb the mountains and cut the fine, needle-like leaves from wild rooibos plants. They then rolled the bunches of leaves into hessian bags and brought them down the steep slopes using donkeys. The leaves were then chopped with axes and bruised with hammers, before being left to dry in the sun.
In 1904, Benjamin Ginsberg ran a variety of experiments at Rondegat Farm, finally curing rooibos. He simulated the traditional Chinese method of making Keemun by fermenting the tea in barrels. The major hurdle in growing rooibos commercially was that farmers could not germinate the rooibos seeds. The seeds were hard to find and impossible to germinate commercially.
In 1930 District Surgeon and botanist Dr Pieter Le Fras Nortier began conducting experiments with the cultivation of the rooibos plant. Dr Nortier also saw the vast commercial potential the tea held for the region.
Dr Nortier cultivated the first plants at Clanwilliam on his farm Eastside and on the farm Klein Kliphuis. The tiny seeds were very difficult to come by. Dr Nortier paid the local villagers £5 per matchbox of seeds collected. An aged Khoi woman found an unusual seed source: having chanced upon ants dragging seed, she followed them back to their nest and, on breaking it open, found a granary. Dr. Nortier's research was ultimately successful and he subsequently showed all the local farmers how to germinate their own seeds. The secret lay in scarifying the seed pods. Dr Nortier placed a layer of seeds between two mill stones and ground away some of the seed pod wall. Thereafter the seeds were easily propagated. Over the next decade the price of seeds soared to an astounding £80 a pound, the most expensive vegetable seed in the world, as farmers rushed to plant rooibos. Today, the seed is gathered by special sifting processes. Dr Nortier is today accepted as the father of the rooibos tea industry. Thanks to his research, rooibos tea became an iconic national beverage and then a globalised commodity. Rooibos tea production is today the economic mainstay of the Clanwilliam district. In 1948 The University of Stellenbosch awarded Dr Nortier an Honorary Doctorate D.Sc (Agria) in recognition for his valuable contribution to South African agriculture.
US trademark controversy
In 1994, Burke International registered the name "Rooibos" with the US Patent and Trademark Office, thus establishing a monopoly on the name in the United States at a time when it was virtually unknown there. When the plant later entered more widespread use, Burke demanded that companies either pay fees for use of the name, or cease its use. In 2005, the American Herbal Products Association and a number of import companies succeeded in defeating the trademark through petitions and lawsuits; after losing one of the cases, Burke surrendered the name to the public domain.
Legal protection of the name rooibos
The South African Department of Trade and Industry issued final rules on 6 September 2013 that protects and restricts the use of the names "rooibos", "red bush", "rooibostee", "rooibos tea", "rooitee" and "rooibosch" in that country, so that the name cannot be used for things not derived from the Aspalathus linearis plant. It also provides guidance and restrictions for how products which include Rooibos, and in what measures, should use the name "rooibos" in their branding.
Threat from climate change
The rooibos plant is endemic to a small part of the western coast of the Western Cape province of South Africa. It grows in a symbiotic relationship with local micro-organisms. Scientists speculate that climate change may threaten the future survival of the plant and the R600-million (approximately €43-million in March 2017) rooibos industry. Some claim that increasing temperatures and decreasing rainfall may result in the extinction of the plant within the next century.
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