My Home, Rooibos
Rooibos tea is more than just a hot drink. It’s a sense. A feeling. It’s home. I grew up helping my parents at the café. Tea was one of my favorite drinks. I remember the first time I tried rooibos tea; I was in Vancouver at the one place I stop every time I’m there, at Granville Island Market. I could smell a magnificent sweet woodsy/earthy smell drifting in the air. Following my nose in an almost dream like state I bump into the Granville Island Tea Company’s stand. I asked the lady “what is that wonderful smell coming from.” She replied “it’s African rooibos, which just came in for the first time last month” as she hands me a cup so hot that the steam looked like a misty forest floor where you can only see the edges of reality.
After cooling for what seemed like an hour, I finally got to taste what seemed to be a scent from my dreams. It was magical. Putting me into a dream-like state, memories of cold winter mornings up and Sun Peaks opening up the store and immediately making a pot of tea before doing my chores. Memories of skiing on an ice cold day with the family and coming back to visit grandma for tea and cookies during lunch and more memories hit me all at once with a single sip. My memories of what home is to me comes in a package of Rooibos tea. I have never had a real home in the sense of a house because I moved a lot before university. My family never lived in the same place for more than six months at a time. To me, Rooibos was new but it has long been important to the people of its native lands, Africa. In its homeland it has been transformed from a plant that the aborigines would have to climb high up in the mountains to capture the crop that supports an economy that may have pharmacologic properties as well. These pharmacologic properties include antioxidant properties that are equivalent to other plants, such as green tea, but lack the negative effects of caffeine. Making this plant special in more ways than our North American minds can dream up.
Rooibos was traditionally harvested by the aborigines of the Cederberg and Bokkeveld region of South Africa found in the fynbos area. Fynbos is Afrikaan for “fine bush” and is found in the Western cape of Africa that has a Mediterranean climate. The aborigines call the area this because of all the edible plant life found there. Afrikaan is the language of the aborigines of South Africa where rooibos is found. One such plant is rooibos, Afrikaan for “red bush.” The name originates from the color of the leaves after the leaves have been oxidized in the “fermentation” (not real fermentation like that found in beer processing) process of the tea made from the needle like leaves. Just like the aborigines, I have also worked hard for the things I have. From the age of nine, till my parents moved away in the fall of 2008, I have worked in their café and restaurant up at Sun Peaks, BC. With minimal time I focused on my schooling and so did another scientist Dr. Le Fras Nortier when he cultivated rooibos in the 1930’s when noticing aborigines coming down the mountains with baskets of sticks on the back of donkeys and wondered if it could be used as a economic crop. At the time Nortier wanted to find a crop that has economic value without bringing in a non-native plant into the area. He chooses to focus on this tea/plant called rooibos.
Rooibos, Aspalathus linearis, is a shrub-like plant found in the Fabaceae family. The plant has a small yellow flower that is typical of the Fabaceae family. The flower, as seen in the diagram below, has a banner on top and two wings coming out the sides of the keel (two fused petals) at the bottom. The leaves that are used to produces the tea are needle like (Diagram 1).
Diagram 1: Flower and leaf structure of the plant rooibos.
Cultivation of rooibos was complicated at first. Just like the bumpy road through my first year at university. I was tired and didn’t want grow up, just like the seeds, they also didn’t want to grow up. The seeds of the rooibos plant have a hard seed coat that must be weakened before germination can occur. Nortier discovered this through a process of trial and error. He needed lots of seed that are wind-dispersed; this caused him to get the local aborigines and farmers to gather seeds. He paid a dollar per matchbox full of seed. Eventually one of his trials worked. He found that if one were to soak the seeds for forty minutes then the seeds would be ready to germinate. Once artificial germination was established Nortier could get the locals to farm this shrub. Rooibos became economically important because it’s a caffeine alternative beverage only cultivated in one particular area, the fynbos area.
Once the crop is farmed you must harvest and process it. Rooibos needs to be hand picked. There are two choices after harvesting the tea: ferment it for the traditional flavor or leave it green for an increase in antioxidant properties. To reduce or avoid the oxidation of the leaves of Rooibos one should denature the proteins/enzymes responsible for the oxidative process through slowly steaming the crop. This is timely and expensive so most industries don’t use this method and therefore have some oxidation of the green tea blend (loss of some of the antioxidant properties found in rooibos). The other, red, tea blend is fermented by layering the leaves with wet Hessian (burlap) sacking covering a barrel to bruise the leaves for the fermentation, actually oxidation (no yeast used, a chemical breakdown), of the tea. The bruised leaves are then left out in the sun to oxidize the leaves, turning them that traditional red color. This is similar to the traditional methods of oxidizing rooibos by the aborigines; except, they bruise the leaves with axes and hammers rather than the Hessian sacking.
The aborigines traditionally use this tea as a herbal remedy for many common health issues. Some of the first uses of rooibos were to treat infantile colic, allergies, asthma, and dermatological problems. The modern world on the other hand mostly uses the tea as a relaxing drink rather than an actual remedy. Although, there are modern uses that don’t just revolve around relaxation. The tea is a caffeine alternative that is used like espresso in “red espresso” and lattes. Researchers led by Marnewick found that the bad cholesterol (LDL) was reduced by drinking six cups of rooibos a day over six weeks and that good cholesterol (HDL) was also increased significantly. This means that this drink could have medical benefits for individuals with heart complications and high cholesterol. Rooibos has also been shown to help individuals with diabetes, decreasing the blood-sugar levels via promoting the uptake of sugar by muscles and promotion of insulin in insulin deficient individuals. There needs to be more studies done to accurately depict the full benefits of rooibos. Rooibos may be more than a tea for the aborigines, and more than a tea for those with high cholesterol and diabetes but it is home for me.
I had to meet someone, named Erik, before I would know what a traditional home is like. Erik and I have been together for four years now and his home is extremely traditional. His grandparents built their own house and he has live here for almost 20 years. The longest I have lived in a house is the last three years with Erik. Before, Erik, home was a feeling, a sense, of family, happiness. That sense of home was tapped that day at the Grandville Island Tea Company’s stand. The aborigines must have a similar feeling when they still climb the mountains to pick the wild rooibos. From the mountains in S. Africa to my steaming cup of tea in my hand, rooibos is more than just another tea.
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