Rooibos and co-creation

Rooibos and the bonds that bless:

Rooibos is one of South Africa’s best-researched plants, having been the subject of many academic studies across the world. But did you know that power of rooibos can best be ascribed to its capacity for forming connections? Let me explain what I mean.Rooibos is quite a mineral-rich plant, containing Iron, Potassium, Calcium, Copper (and Vitamin C), but it is best known for its richness in flavonoids, specifically Aspalathin, Nothofagin, Quercitin, Rutin and Chrysoeriol. Described simply, these flavonoids are highly stable, sugar-based aromatic molecules which are – by virtue of their stability – able to interact chemically with other substances, and in the case of rooibos, perform the vital anti-oxidant activity that allows the plant to deliver such a wide range of health-giving benefits.

But what is anti-oxidant activity, anyway? In brief, it is the process of forming a bond that neutralises destructive free radicals. Free radicals are reactive molecules, generated by our body through various internal processes, as well as external stresses. Think of them as particles bearing a dangerous loose end: an unpaired electron looking for a purpose. Inside the body, this electron can be donated to another molecule (oxidation), or it can borrow from another (reduction or degeneration). Either of these processes causes wide-ranging damage in the body (to fats, proteins and DNA), broadly known as oxidative stress. There is a theory that all ageing in the body ultimately relates to oxidative stress. It has been linked to many disease conditions, including anthersclerosis, inflammation and inflammatory diseases of various organs, some cancers, diabetes, gastric ulcers, hypertension and neurological disorders.

An antioxidant is a molecule stable enough to donate an electron to a free radical on the rampage and neutralize it, thus reducing its capacity to damage, either by scavenging it, or by promoting its decomposition. Nothofagin and Aspalathin, the two most important antioxidants in rooibos, have been found to have particularly high free radical scavenging activity, also helping to prevent mutation of DNA. Their effectivity, it is thought, may be due to the particular stability of their molecular structure.

The anti-oxidant effect in rooibos has been linked to some far-reaching benefits, all relating to preventing degeneration and mutation by neutralising the body’s own destructive internal by-products. A bond that makes positive change from the inside. Or the outside: this anti-oxidant effect also makes rooibos useful on the skin (as a poultice, in the form of wet tea bags, or in an ointment), to treat rashes, burns, insect bites, aching teeth and bleeding gums. It also makes a wonderful base for any moisturiser, gradually helping to slow down ageing and even provide some UV protection.

But free radicals are not the only substances to which rooibos can make a happy connection. As an aromatic, it has also been found to bond or combine well, and this is certainly true of its practical usage. Many medicinal plants prefer to work on their own, or in specific synergistic combinations, but rooibos seems to work well with anything. In its traditional use, it is often used as a carrier to assist in consuming various herbal preparations. In contemporary commercial use, it has spawned massive creativity through all the combinations it supports - there are over a hundred rooibos-based herbal tea blends, just for starters. I find it very practical to combine rooibos with other fynbos, thereby incorporating the very powerful medicinal properties of some of its wilderness companions. In addition, it sometimes makes working with rooibos easier. For example, while rooibos has a resin, not an essential oil, it can be distilled with an oil-bearing plant, such as buchu, to create a buchu oil that infused with pure, concrentrated rooibos resin. The result: something softer, rounder and more balanced that pure buchu on its own.   

It has recently been found that rooibos prefers companion planting. It is the trend, in modern agriculture, to remove any plant besides the intended crop. However, recent science reveals that the increased microbial health of a space in which rooibos is left co-planted with up to eight companions natural to its wild state, will result in far greater longevity for the crop – plus the future survival of our fynbos biome! Rooibos doesn’t want to be left on its own…

Of course, the very existence of rooibos as a commercial crop has been a co-creative process. From the most recent and comprehensive study on the origins of knowledge about rooibos, it is not 100% clear whether rooibos was consumed as a beverage by ancient San and Khoi people, but it is clear that by the nineteenth century, it was very popular with colonialists and local people alike. The knowledge of harvesting and processing the wild tea, however, certainly originated with the brown communities in the Cederberg region. In the mountains around Wupperthal and Eselbank, people would collect the wild rooibos plants and carry them to the village on the backs of donkeys. Back at the village, it would be processed by chopping the tea on a wooden block, sprinkling it with water and leaving it covered by sticks overnight. The following morning, the tea would be spread out to dry and then used as a tea, which would be consumed all day. The modern process remains largely similar.

The process of obtaining seed was similarly co-creative. In the 1930’s, Lefras Nortier was attempting to cultivate the tea at Klein Kliphuis farm. One of his challenges was collecting the seeds - they are truly hard to find, as they fall at different times. Nortier would purchase the seeds from neighbouring Khoi people, one of whom discovered a secret that is still used by many farmers to source seeds today: following ants to their nests, where they keep granaries of ready-scarified rooibos seeds. Transplanting seedlings proved equally challenging, and it was eventually discovered that one must work strictly in sync with the weather, planting just after heavy rain, when more rain is due (once established, rooibos does not require watering). Even in the 1950’s, it was said that a farmer would count himself lucky with a 50% hit rate. An incredible story, then, of interdependence, between plants, animals, the weather - and people working from different types of knowledge systems.

To me, this last story summarises the real truth of rooibos; the genius it wants us to find: The Art of Successful Co-Creation. We are inescapably interconnected yet still individualised. It is safe to dissolve our perceived “boundaries” when we have the inner strength to maintain our own core essence, and thus, our purpose in this world. In the words of the great Lao Tzu, “The wise cultivate inner strength and tranquility. That is why they are not seduced by addictive temptations”.

Bearing in mind all this co-creation, I am publishing, for rooibos day, a recipe for making moisturiser with rooibos and one of its favourite companions – Dodonaea Angustifolia, the Sand Olive (a potent anti-microbial and anti-mutagenic plant).

Anti-ageing moisturiser with Rooibos and Sand Olive

-    30g beeswax
-    250ml quality base oil - I use a combination of organic baobab oil, marula oil, cold-pressed organic castor oil and grapeseed oil
-    130ml rooibos and sand olive hydrosol - a hydrosol is produced steam distillation through plant material. The slightly milky, condensed result contains all the water-soluble compounds in the plant. Because many of the compounds in rooibos are water soluble, this ingredient is essential - do not substitute with plain water. If you do not have access to a hydrosol, you can make a strong tea, using freshly cut rooibos and sand olive leaves. If you use processed rooibos, at least ensure it is green rooibos!
-    5ml borax
-    About 400ml of rooibos and sand olive leaves - try to get hold of unpasteurised rooibos, as the anti-oxidant content is far higher. Straight off the plant if you can!
-    25 drops of essential oil (I use a double-distillate of rooibos and lemongrass for this recipe)

-    - Fill a saucepan with water. Keep a jug of water handy and keep checking to make sure it never boils dry.
-    Place a heat-proof glass dish on top of your saucepan and add the beeswax, oil and dry plant material. Heat gently for three hours. Regularly bruise the leaves using a wooden spoon.
-    Once the oils are nearly done, place your distillate into a saucepan and throw in the borax. Heat until the borax is dissolved completely, and then immediately remove from heat. Do not allow this mixture to boil.
-    Remove the oil from heat, and strain out all the herbs, using a sieve or preferably muslin cloth.
-    Pour both mixtures into a heat-proof glass jug and mix thoroughly with an immersion blender.  Add the essential oil and stir and keep mixing until your mixture has an even, creamy consistency.
-    Pour out into clean glass jars and seal immediately. Allow to set overnight. Label neatly.
-    The resultant moisturiser can be used on the face and body, is safe for babies and for sensitive skin. Keep away from direct sunlight and extreme temperatures. Keep it sealed.