The Roots of Rooibos Tea

Words: Tam Selley

I can say with the utmost confidence that almost every single person in South Africa has enjoyed a cup of hot, steamy rooibos tea. This naturally sweet, calming and caffeine-free herbal tea has won the hearts of South Africans and many around the world too.

What used to be a bush tea, brewed only by the early indigenous Khoisan people, has now become a widely appreciated tea for its delicious and nutritious properties. We take a look at the history behind South Africa’s most adored local tea.

Rooibos tea

Origins of Rooibos

Rooibos (Aspalathus linearis), meaning ‘red bush’, is a member of the Fabaceae family of plants, and finds its roots in the Cederberg region of the Western Cape. It’s here, and only here, that rooibos is able to thrive naturally, making it uniquely South African.

Rooibos gets its reddish-brown colour from the fermentation process.

The earliest recorded uses of rooibos tea date back thousands of years and stems from South Africa’s indigenous people, the Khoisan. The tea was harvested to drink for enjoyment for its sweet flavour, but more importantly for its medicinal healing and herbal properties.

Traditionally, the Khoisan would harvest the needle-like leaves from the wild rooibos plants and store them in large hessian bags. The leaves then went through a primordial production process, which began with chopping the leaves up with axes. Once finely chopped, the leaves were bruised with mallets and spread across the ground to dry under the torrid African sun.

Rooibos Research

European botanist, Carl Thunberg, arrived in South Africa in the late 1700s to study rooibos and observe the indigenous people harvest it. He piqued widespread interest in rooibos tea, following his research into the tasty low-tannin bush brew that the Khoisans religiously consumed. It then progressively became a staple tea-drinking alternative for early Dutch settlers who couldn’t afford the expensive black tea imported from Europe that they were used to drinking.

Rooibos, technically speaking, is not actually a tea.

Although the knowledge of rooibos tea had surpassed that of just the Khoisan people, it was only in the early 1900s that it was commercialised after its discovery by Russian immigrant, Benjamin Ginsberg. Ginsberg capitalised on the retail potential of this revolutionary ‘mountain tea’, as he marketed it as, following his fascination with the plant. The naturally sweet, caffeine-free herbal tea had various properties beneficial to health and well-being that Ginsberg wanted to trade commercially.

rooibos tea

Rooibos Tea on the Map

What also firmly placed rooibos tea on the international map was Dr. Annetjie Theron’s published book on her extensive research into rooibos tea and how it aided her baby’s colic. The South African mother went ahead to gain insights on rooibos and published, Allergies: An Amazing Discovery, which significantly contributed to the promotion of rooibos tea and its health benefits.

Benefits of Rooibos Tea

Apart from being downright delish, Rooibos is recognised for a host of healthy and beneficial properties. As the Khoisans knew thousands of years ago, we too now know that Rooibos tea is packed with various vitamins, minerals and healing properties. It contains a high concentration of antioxidants that help fight cancerous cells, help boost the immune system and slow down the ageing process and if you drink six cups a day – you’ll reap the benefits of Rooibos.

Rooibos extract can aid in repairing skin damage from the sun.

It’s also known to help fight insomnia and has antispasmodic properties that help relieve tension and stomach cramps. It’s basically a teacup-sized doccie.


Today, you can find Rooibos in every South African supermarket and almost every South African home. It’s become so popular that even stores in Europe and other areas of the world import and stock it in their stores. It’s also the first recorded tea to be made into an ‘espresso’ alternative, which we know as the ‘red espresso’. Apart from its more obvious uses, Rooibos is also extracted and used in a number of skincare products for its anti-ageing properties, as well as soaps and candles for its sweet scent.

Some things you probably didn’t know:

  1. Rooibos, technically speaking, is not actually a tea. Because it’s not related to the traditional tea plant (Camellia simensis), it can’t be classified as a tea but rather recognised as a herb.
  2. Rooibos gets its reddish-brown colour from the fermentation process.
  3. Using a face cream with rooibos extract can aid in repairing skin damage from the sun.

How to Take Your Tea

Steep your tea bag in freshly boiled water and drink ‘au natural’, or if you prefer, add some milk, honey or sugar to taste. If you’re feeling a bit more adventurous — try some of our favourite recipes below that use rooibos tea.

For Your Cool Down

Sutherlandia Rooibos Tea

A delish and cool tea to whip up on a warm summers day. Sweetened with agave syrup, pomegranate juice and added fresh mint and lime.

Recipe for Sutherlandia Rooibos Tea

Homemade Rooibos Ice Tea

This will be your new staple iced tea recipe for home.

Recipe for Homemade Rooibos Ice Tea

For Your Health

Rooibos kombucha
rooibos chai latte

Rooibos Kombucha Tea

Kombucha has so many amazing health properties that work to keep your gut healthy – try our refreshing version.

Recipe for Rooibos Kombucha Tea 

Warming Rooibos Gingerbread Latte

Even the name of this recipe evokes feelings of warmth and comfort. Ginger is another incredible ingredient that helps boost the immune system when you’re feeling down and out.

Recipe for Warming Rooibos Gingerbread Latte

For Your Happiness

Tea Crepe Cake
Tea Cobbler Dessert

Crème Brûlée Crêpe Cake

This is an amalgamation of all our favourite desserts in one.

Recipe for Crème Brûlée Crêpe Cake

Fruit Cobbler Infused with Black Currant Rooibos Tea

A gorgeous gluten-free dessert option topped with a crunchy cobbler.

Recipe for Gluten Free Fruit Cobbler Infused with Black Currant Rooibos Tea

Now that you know about the roots of rooibos, learn about all the remarkable health benefits of rooibos.

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