Is Rooibos a True Tea?

May 30, 2016 by Bruce Richardson


Rooibos or Red Bush might be a common beverage found in tea cups across South Africa, but it is not a true tea. And 19th century London tea traders did not welcome the import to their stage.

Proceedings at the London Auction Room following the demise of the East India Company were most carried on in a polite and dignified manner, in keeping with the theme of the country’s favored beverage and ritual. All that gentility was put to the test on December 21, 1867 when Mr. George Townend of Townend Brothers, rashly offered a parcel of “bush tea” from Natal, a province of South Africa.

Known today as Rooibos or Red Bush, this native herb is not a true tea and has nothing to do with Camellia sinensis, the tea plant.

The appearance of two samples of Rooibos in the middle of the room was greeted with yells of protest.

India House, The Sale Room, from 'Ackermann's Microcosm of London', engraved by Joseph Constantine Stadler (fl.1780-1812), 1808 (aquatint), Rowlandson, T. (1756-1827) & Pugin, A.C. (1762-1832) (after) / Private Collection / The Stapleton Collection / The Bridgeman Art Library

India House, The Sale Room, from ‘Ackermann’s Microcosm of London’, engraved by Joseph Constantine Stadler (fl.1780-1812)

Mr. Holborn was in charge and suggested that the herb be taken away to the drug department. In spite of the uproar, the unfortunate broker refused to abandon the sale. There were of course no bids and what the Grocer called “a monstrous bale of rubbish” was withdrawn.

The incident would however not be let go by the press. The Grocer’s editorial page had more to say:

Our readers will blush with us for shame the Produce Markets Review should so far forget the honour of the trade with which it meddles, as even to infer a sanction for the attempted sale…

Although Rooibos was considered “mother’s milk” in South Africa where it was often taken with milk and sugar, and served in porcelain cups, the pernicious herb would never again enter the hallowed halls of the revered London Auction Centre.

Author: Bruce Richardson
Tea Master for the Boston Tea Party Ships and Museum

MSN calls Bruce Richardson "A leading tea expert involved in tea's American renaissance for over 25 years." The native Kentuckian is a writer, photographer, tea blender, and frequent guest speaker at tea events across the globe. He can often be found appearing on television and radio talk shows, or as a guest speaker at professional seminars such as World Tea Expo and China Global Tea Fair. He is the author of over a dozen books on the subject of tea. Mr. Richardson serves as Tea Master for the Boston Tea Party Ships & Museum.