Rooibos, is an endemic herb of the mountainous regions of the Western Cape, known as the Cedarberg mountains. It is a member of the pea family, whose name simply means 'red bush' in Afrikaans in allusion to the colour of the infusion made from its leaves. However, the tea only develops this colour after the herb has undergone a fermentation process similar to that of black tea, which completely changes its flavour. Unfermented leaves produce a yellowish/green tea. The fermentation technique was originally developed by the indigenous Khoi people (also known as 'bushmen'), who introduced white Afrikaans to their 'tea herb' in 1772. Ever since then it has slowly, but surely conquered the taste buds of the general population of South Africa and increasingly around the world. Commercial production began in 1930, but it wasn't until the dawn of the new millennium that the general public became aware of the fact that Rooibos doesn't just make a tasty brew, but also a very healthy one that lacks the tannin and caffeine of the regular cuppa. The mild flavoured, fruity tea is a very rich source of antioxidants, which have many well documented protective health benefits.
In general, Rooibos tea is simply enjoyed as a healthy alternative to regular tea or coffee. However, recent research has shown that it has a number of interesting health benefits. Rooibos is very rich in antioxidants (especially the unfermented type), which help fight the damaging attacks of free radicals and can thus help protect against serious cell damage. Free radicals play a role in the development of cancerous cell mutations. They are also protective against heart attacks and strokes. Animal studies have shown that Rooibos protects cells against radiation damage (better than green tea) and have also shown a significant protective effect against degenerative brain cell changes in ageing rats. On the more empirical end of the scale, a South African woman started experimenting with possible health benefits of Rooibos after noticing that it had a calming effect on her baby's colic attacks and also seemed to have a positive effect on allergies. It was found that it was helpful for irritability, insomnia, headaches and nappy rash. There are also some claims that Rooibos has some protective effect on the liver, but much more research is necessary to substantiate any of these claims. Rooibos extract can sometimes be found as an additive in natural cosmetics and is said to be helpful in cases of eczema.
Not much is known about the traditional uses of Rooibos among the San and Khoi Khoi people. Modern practitioners may use is for rejuvenation and to promote inner peace. It can also be helpful for dream work.