Rooibos is a shrub native to South Africa that is cultivated for its shoots and leaves. Once dried, it makes a flavorful and distinctive beverage that is very popular in South Africa. Growing awareness of the drink around the world increased the demand for it in the 1990s, and it is not uncommon to see Rooibos on the menu at cafes and tea shops. Many markets carry it for home brewing, as well.
In Afrikaans, Rooibos means “red bush,” a reference to the startling red color that the leaves attain after they have been oxidized. Some consumers mistakenly call the beverage brewed from these leaves “red tea” when it is not a true tea, since it does not come from the Camellia sinensis plant. Instead it is classified as a tisane, an herbal brew, and it is handled very differently than tea is.
When Rooibos is processed, whole branches filled with the short, needle-shaped leaves are cut, bruised, and set out to dry. The bruising encourages oxidation, which will ultimately turn the leaves a rich red color. Once dried, it can be toasted for extra flavor, or sold plain. Another form, green Rooibos, is not allowed to oxidize. As a result, it has a very different flavor, as well as a higher concentration of vitamins and minerals than the fermented version that is more widely known.
The Rooibos bush, known formally as Aspalathus linearis, thrives best in the Western Cape Province, where it has been grown and used for centuries by the native Khoisan people. In the 1700s, European explorers took note of the plant and its uses, and consumption of the drink made from it became widespread among new settlers in the region. A cup has a slightly nutty and sweet flavor, and it is loaded with antioxidants, making it a rather healthy drink. The tisane is also low in tannins that could interfere with digestion and make it bitter, and it has no caffeine.
Unlike tea, Rooibos actually benefits from a long steeping. The longer the leaves and shoots remain in hot water, the more flavorful and rich the resulting tisane is. Since it does not have caffeine, it is safe for young children to drink, and some mothers give it to restless children since it seems to have calming properties. It can also ease headaches and nerves. Rooibos is also sometimes incorporated into skincare products, since it seems to soothe and nourish the skin as well as the body.