Rooibos: the bonds that bless

Aspalathus Linearis

: Strength born of unexpected connections - the bonds that bless.
FAMILY: FABACEAE (Legumes and peas)

Mind can accept any boundary anywhere. But the reality is that, by its very nature, existence cannot have any boundary, because what will be beyond the boundary? Again another sky.


The needle-shaped leaves offer our first clue as to the protective function of this pretty shrub. These bright-green needles, which turn their characteristic red when fermented or stressed, help prevent loss of water. At the same time, they produce some unique and powerful flavonoids, which help protect the plant (and its users) against harsh conditions, including UV radiation. Thanks to their leaves (and a very long tap root), even commercial plantations can survive without irrigation in the arid Cederberg. In fact, the plant must be left unwatered for some months before harvest to ensure that the flavonoids develop to their full potency.

Rooibos is one of South Africa’s best-researched plants, having been the subject of many academic studies across the world, particularly in Japan. It has been found to be a powerful anti-oxidant, with free radical scavengers that help reduce inflammation and related diseases, as well as spasms and colic. It does so by forming a bond that neutralises destructive free radicals.

Free radicals are reactive molecules, generated by our body by 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.

Rooibos has also been found to be a good support for the health of the circulatory system, helping to strengthen the blood vessels, reduce blood pressure and lower heart disease risk. It is an ACE inhibitor, and also helps to lower the migration of smooth muscle cells in the aorta (which creates hardening of arteries). It also helps reduce the degeneration of fats in the blood through oxidative stress (lipid peroxidation). It has even been found effective in treating type 2 diabetes.

Inside and out, rooibos combats stress and helps prevent degeneration. It supports the connective tissue in the body, both at a superficial and organ level, and thus slows down ageing. Its anti-mutagenic properties may also help to prevent cancer, or at least slow down its growth rate. Best of all, it is really easy to use (inside and out!), in whole plant form. Rooibos, on its own or in combination with other medicinal herbs, makes a delicious tea (which can also replace the water content of any recipe). Externally, it can be used 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 clear the skin, slow down ageing and even provide a measure of UV protection. Whatever other plant I incorporate into my moisturiser, I always include rooibos - it blends well with anything and its antioxidant superboost is an obvious choice for the most important step in one’s skincare regime. I’ve included the recipe here: try it - you’ll never buy anything else again.

Anti-ageing moisturiser with Rooibos (and optional buchu variant)

- 30g beeswax

- 250ml quality base oil - I use a combination of organic baobab oil, hempseed oil and olive oil
- 130ml rooibos hydrosol, or, if preferred, rooibos and buchu 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. Tea can be used, but be careful of staining. It is also less potent than rooibos hydrosol.
- 5ml borax
- About 400ml of rooibos and buchu 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 buchu)

- 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.
- 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.

Of course, if this all sounds a bit complicated, you can always buy any one of my range of moisturisers, either directly from me, or from various retailers in the Clanwilliam area.

At a biomolecular level, we’ve already seen how much of rooibos’ power comes from it’s ability to form bonds that make positive changes. 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.  

Rooibos seems to facilitate great combinations, bringing its own strength and restorative function but also acting as a connector. Of course, its very existence as a commercial crop has been a co-creative process. It is believed that European settlers first learned of its use as a relaxing beverage from the Khoi. 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 very first person to start trading the tea commercially (Russian Jewish settler, Benjamin Ginsberg, in 1904) would buy it from the Khoi.

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. His first challenge was collecting the seeds - the rooibos pods tend to burst open at different times, scattering seeds everywhere, and they are truly hard to find. Nortier would purchase the seeds from neighbouring Khoi people, but one Khoi woman, Tryntjie Swarts, discovered a secret that is still used by many farmers to source seeds today: she followed a line of ants to their nests, where she discovered a granary of seeds, ready to harvest. Another advantage of following the ants is the fact that they actually eat away the hard outer shell of the seed, which otherwise needs scarifying or in today’s world, pre-treatment. Even today, rooibos seeds fetch an unusually high price. Transplanting the germinated seeds 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). According to Lawrence Green, “In the land of afternoon (1959)”, 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. This interdependence is being tested, even today, as the rooibos industry moves forward in an attempt to find common ground on the issue of “Access and Benefits Sharing” between traditional knowledge holders and commercial beneficiaries. A contentious process, perhaps, but potentially one in which Aspalathus’  calming, neutralising bonds will be felt, in an interaction that makes history by being beneficial and healing to all involved.

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”. That, to me, is the true genius of rooibos and indeed co-creation: to dissolve “boundaries” by realising our inescapable interconnectedness, but with the inner strength to maintain one’s core essence, and thus, one’s true contribution.

COMPOUNDS: Ascorbic Acid (Vitamin C), Iron, Potassium, Calcium, Copper, plus various phenolic glucosides, including key flavonoids Aspalathin, Nothofagin, Quercitin, Rutin and Chrysoeriol. The flavonoids, as glucosides, consist of a sugar that is biochemically bonded to an aromatic ring (or, in the case of dihydrochalcones like Nothfagin and Aspalathin, three open rings). From this stable base, they can 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 vital range of health-giving benefits. Of the various compounds in rooibos, Rutin and Chrysoeriol are credited with conferring vascular health (strengthening blood vessels), but Nothofagin and Aspalathin have been found to have particularly high free radical scavenging activity, also helping to prevent mutation of DNA.

LOCATION: Rooibos is most readily found in plantations, on every farm in the area. In the wild, it is most prolific in the hilltops that stretch southward from the Agter Pakhuis towards Heuningvlei.