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What is Rooibos?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 17, 2024
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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.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a WiseGeek researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By anon304032 — On Nov 17, 2012

@anon226732: It's pronounced "roy-bos" (Rooibos).

By anon226732 — On Nov 01, 2011

I've been all over this internet thingy and all I want is someone to tell me how to pronounce "rooibos." Can someone do that? Please?

By behaviourism — On Jul 20, 2011

One of the things I like most about rooibos red tea is its distinctive smell. My parents drink a lot of black tea, and I've inherited a taste for that and also green tea, but red tea is just a different taste and smell. Since I only discovered it a few years ago, it still seems new to me, and I love to buy rooibos tea, especially when I can find new types to try.

By wavy58 — On Jul 19, 2011

My friends and I get our children together on Friday nights often for a big sleepover. We have what we call “red tea parties.” It’s actually rooibos tea, but they don’t need to know that it is good for them and caffeine free!

For the kids, I use one teaspoon of rooibos in one cup of water with a touch of sugar. I have found both almond and mango flavors of rooibos, and children love them.

For the adults, I use anywhere from two to four teaspoons per cup, depending on how stout they like it. Four teaspoons makes a nice, strong drink.

By OeKc05 — On Jul 19, 2011

Before trying any new organic teas or products, I always research them first. I had considered drinking rooibos tea for its powerful antioxidant punch, but I wanted to learn about any side effects before trying it.

I could only find one negative side effect, but it was an important one for me. I am anemic, and I have to take iron supplements to maintain normal levels and keep my energy up. I found that rooibos tea can slow down the rate at which my body can absorb iron from the food that I eat. It soaks up some of the iron. So, there will be no rooibos tea for me.

By lighth0se33 — On Jul 18, 2011

When I started drinking rooibos tea, I followed the instructions on the package for producing the best quality tea. I wanted to get the greatest benefit possible from it, so I didn’t want to just pour boiling water on it and hope for the best.

The package recommended using a good infuser to strain the tiny leaves. It said to use one heaping teaspoon for each mug-size cup.

Also, it suggested using either natural spring water or fresh distilled water. Impurities in tap water can alter the taste.

After the water boiled, I had to let it cool for ten seconds before pouring it slowly over the leaves. Then, I steeped it for 8 minutes to get a good strong tea.

By kylee07drg — On Jul 17, 2011

I use organic rooibos in my skin care products. It is supposed to fight free radicals and prevent skin aging. Though the truth of these claims can only be seen with use over a long period of time, I know that it does help with a few other things that it is marketed for.

Rooibos contains a natural alphahydroxy acid. Because of this, it really does help smooth fine wrinkles and lines.

Rooibos also contains zinc. This mineral is crucial to the metabolism of the skin. Improving the skin’s metabolism improves its elasticity and ability to retain moisture. My skin does appear and feel more supple after using rooibos.

By SteamLouis — On Jul 17, 2011

@feruze- Absolutely! You can have it anyway you like. I don't like having it hot, so after I steep rooibos in hot water, I let it cool down, add sugar or honey, ice cubes and some fresh mint. It's a great summer drink.

I did make a punch with it one time for a barbecue we were having. I did everything the same, except I added fruit juice, more ice and put it in the blender a little bit for an icy smoothy consistency.

I've heard that rooibos is great for in cocktails too. I think your imagination is the limit when it comes to having rooibos, feel free to try different things.

By ysmina — On Jul 17, 2011

I have been using a skin care line for the past several years that uses white tea and black tea extracts in their products. Recently, they've also introduced a line of skin care creams with rooibos. I had never heard of rooibos before so I wanted to learn a little bit about it before I try any products.

The company claims that rooibos is a good ingredient for problem skin, like acne prone and sensitive skin because it is anti-inflammatory. It is said to protect against the sun's negative affects and is safe enough to use for babies.

I have problems with acne and dehydrated skin, so I think I will try rooibos products to see if it will help. I also think that if natives have been using rooibos on their skin for hundreds of years in Africa, it must be good.

By bear78 — On Jul 16, 2011

Is rooibos only drank hot or can it be made as a cool drink as well? Can I use it as a base for a smoothie or juice?

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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