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Rooibos (Redbush) Tea

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Tea is a much-loved drink, and different kinds are drunk every day around the world. One tea which has enjoyed a dramatic rise in popularity over the last decade is Rooibos1 or 'Redbush' tea.

What is Rooibos Tea?

Rooibos tea is a naturally uncaffeinated tea made from the Rooibos shrub Aspalathus linearis, which grows only on the North Western Cape of South Africa. The word 'Rooibos' means 'red bush' in Afrikaans, and is so-called because when the green, needle-like leaves of the plant are cut and left to dry in the sun, they turn a beautiful mahogany red colour.

The Rooibos Plant

The rooibos plant is actually a member of the legume family: flowering plants which also include beans and peas. This makes it quite different from conventional black or green teas, which are made from the leaves of the Camellia bush, part of the Theaceae family of trees and shrubs.

Rooibos plants grow exclusively in the Cedarberg region of South Africa, where there is very little rainfall. The soil is sandy, very acidic, and contains virtually no nitrogen - an essential element for plants. Yet the rooibos plant thrives here, and has resisted attempts to grow it in other regions of the world. Part of the secret lies in the plant's very long taproot2, which can reach up to two metres into the ground in a mature plant. This means the plant can reach deep down into the soil for every last drop of water, and so can withstand very dry conditions. As a legume, the rooibos plant can also bind its own nitrogen through bacteria on its roots which take nitrogen from the air and 'fix' it in the plant. This means that the rooibos plants need no irrigation or fertilisation, and so grow and are harvested today much as they have always been.

Rooibos plants produce seeds from their tiny yellow flowers, which bloom in early September. Rooibos farmers collect the seeds to propagate more plants. Some of the seeds are gathered from the plants, while others are obtained from the nests of ants, which gather them for food.

History of Rooibos Tea

For centuries, rooibos tea was drunk by the Khoisan tribe of South Africa, who used it as a herbal medicine. In the 18th Century, a botanist named Carl Humberg reported its use and it began to be enjoyed by South Africans. In 1904, a Russian immigrant called Benjamin Ginsberg began to offer Rooibos to a worldwide market, calling it 'Mountain Tea'. Farmers began to cultivate the crop, and it increased in popularity, especially in the West during World War II, when traditional black tea from Asia was very hard to get hold of.

In 1968, a South African mother named Annique Theron accidentally used some leftover rooibos tea in her baby daughter's bottle and discovered that it had a calming and soothing effect, relieving the baby's chronic restlessness, vomiting and stomach cramps. She advertised in her local newspaper and found other mothers whose infants had similar problems, and these provided a testing ground for her theories about the healing properties of rooibos tea. Wanting to share her discovery with the rest of the world, she wrote a book on the anti-allergic qualities of the Rooibos plant called Allergies: an Amazing Discovery. She later created a range of skincare products containing rooibos extract, which are used to treat dry, irritated and allergic skin.

In 1997, the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO) awarded rooibos a gold medal for its anti-allergic properties, and in 1998 it awarded Annique Theron 'Woman Discoverer of the Year'.

So What's so Special about Rooibos Tea?

Rooibos is naturally caffeine-free, and has less than half the tannin of ordinary tea. Tannin is what gives ordinary tea its bitter taste. It stains teeth and can prevent the absorption of iron in the body.

Rooibos is rich in antioxidants, the substances that combat free radicals in the body3. They are anti-spasmodic, anti-inflammatory and anti-allergenic. Health problems that can be helped by drinking rooibos tea include headaches, colic, asthma, hay fever and insomnia. Rooibos is also said to be beneficial to pancreatitis sufferers, as it soothes the pain of digestive reflux.

Rooibos is also excellent for skin conditions such as eczema, psoriasis or dermatitis. It soothes nappy rash and improves skin condition in acne sufferers. The tea can either be applied to the skin, used as a wash or a drench for the hair to relive dry, itchy scalp, or used in skincare products such as soaps and cleansers. Hospitals in South Africa routinely use rooibos in baths for children with allergic skin conditions, as well as giving it as a drink.

Rooibos is also used to relieve nervous tension and stomach and bowel irritation. It eases the painful symptoms of urinary system diseases such as prostatitis and cystitis, due to its high content of the anti-inflammatory antioxidant quercetin, which has been shown in clinical trials to relieve the symptoms of prostatitis.

How to Enjoy Rooibos Tea

Many people drink rooibos tea as they would black tea, sometimes adding a splash of milk, a slice of lemon or a little honey. It can be reheated by warming on the hob as many times as you like, without the flavour being impaired. Less bitter than black tea, the sweet flavour of rooibos means it's also easier to cut out those teaspoons of sugar! Alternatively, rooibos can be served as an iced tea, or mixed with fruit juice or wine.

Rooibos is also used in cooking, where it can replace any liquid usually used in a recipe, giving the dish its own colour and flavour. It is also said to be a natural meat tenderiser. There are many recipes which include rooibos tea, including soups, salads, meat and fish dishes, and even puddings.

The Future of Rooibos Tea

Around 8,000 tonnes of rooibos tea are produced each year, of which just under half is consumed in South Africa and the rest is exported around the world, primarily to Germany, Japan and the Netherlands. Rooibos tea has gained even more popularity over the last couple of years, with the publication of the bestselling No.1 Ladies Detective Agency series by Alexander McCall Smith. In the books, the main character, Precious Ramotswe, serves her visitors 'redbush' tea. Previously found only in health food shops, most supermarkets in the UK now stock rooibos tea produced by various different suppliers, and its popularity is also growing in the US.

Researchers are studying the health effects of rooibos tea, and some believe rooibos may eventually be classified as a drug, due to its protective and health-giving properties. It is being studied as a preventative against environmentally and dietary-induced cancer. In laboratory trials using rats, rooibos has been shown to slow down or even stop the cell mutations that can lead to cancer. Scientists are planning to begin clinical trials on humans in the near future. It is at this stage that the properties of rooibos will be fully discovered, as many drugs that are tested on rats do not have the same effects when used by humans.

Many years of clinical trials lie ahead for rooibos, but until the results are published and we know just how important this plant and its extracts are, why not get ahead of the game and start enjoying this refreshing, healthy beverage now?

1Pronounced 'roy-boss'.2The primary root, which grows directly downwards.3Free radicals are highly chemically reactive molecules that can damage parts of the body's cells, including DNA. They are implicated in health issues such as cancer and heart disease.

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