This member of the legume family is a shrub native to the Western Cape of South Africa. Three centuries ago, the indigenous people of the region began producing a sweet, pleasant tea from the shrub’s needlelike leaves and stems.
Commercial cultivation of the plant began in South Africa in the 1930s, and today most red bush tea is grown in the country’s Cederberg region north of Cape Town. It is called a “red” tea for the color produced through oxidation, which occurs when the green leaves are crushed, bruised, moistened, and put in piles to dry. The Afrikaans name rooibos means “red bush.”
Common Names: Red Bush Tea, Rooibos
Description: Shrub, up to 6 feet tall, with needle-like leaves and small, yellow flowers
Hardiness: To Zone 9
Parts Used: Leaves and stems
Range/Habitat: Native to Western Cape of South Africa; high elevations
Red bush tea is caffeine-free and is becoming increasingly popular as a substitute for tea (Camellia sinensis). When brewed, the leaves produce a brilliant red infusion. South Africans usually drink rooibos with lemon and sugar or honey, although the herb has a natural sweetness. It can be prepared as a hot or iced tea.
Traditionally, red bush tea has been used to soothe digestion; relieve stomach cramps, colic, and diarrhea; and to treat allergies and asthma. The herb is rich in antioxidants, minerals, and vitamin C and has antiviral properties. It may also enhance immune functions and provide cardiovascular benefits by reducing oxidative stress on the body; studies in this area are ongoing.
How to grow it
Red bush is difficult to grow outside of its native habitat in South Africa. The shrub requires well-drained, sandy, acidic loam and full sun. If you wish to try growing it, start the seeds indoors (a greenhouse is best) in early spring.
Soak the seeds overnight in warm water or scarify them before planting to encourage germination. Plant seeds in a flat filled with a damp mix of compost and sand or perlite, and set the tray in a warm location. In a few weeks, transplant the seedlings to individual pots filled with a 50-50 mix of acidic compost and sand.
The following spring, transplant 1-year-old plants outside, if you live in Zone 9 or warmer. (In colder locations, grow red bush in a large container in a greenhouse.) After 12 to 18 months, the leaves can be harvested. Finely chop them, moisten them with water, and set them in a warm location to oxidize for 24 hours. When the leaves have turned red, spread them out and allow them to dry.