The use of honeybush tea was first documented in 1705. In 1772 the Swedish botanist Thunberg recorded that he found “honigtee” during one of his field trips at the Cape. The earliest record of the early colonists at the Cape using it as a restorative drink (medicinal use) dates back to 1830. The earliest evidence of scientific research – when scientists documented that this herbal drink is caffeine free – comes from 1881.
During the 1930s honeybush tea was harvested in the Kouga area and sold for about 1½ c per kg, but during the war years (1940s) the price increased to 4½ c per kg (Source – Hannes de Lange). The oldest example of honeybush tea packaging – Caspa Tea – dates back to the 1960s.
In 1992 scientists started looking into the propagation and cultivation of honeybush at Kirstenbosch. Further research took off at the Infruitec-Nietvoorbij Research Institute of the Agricultural Research Council (ARC) in Stellenbosch where honeybush research – looking at farming and quality aspects – is still a key focus today.
The first time that honeybush was harvested from a commercial plantation was in 1996, and during the same year a standardised method for processing was developed at the ARC and Stellenbosch University. Small scale and emerging farmers got involved in 1998. Also in 1998, the first organic honeybush was produced and researchers at the ARC produced the first green honeybush tea. They also started collaborating with scientists at the University of the Free State and the Medical Research Council to investigate the composition and cancer-fighting properties of honeybush. Other research highlights were the first studies on phytoestrogen activity (2003, Stellenbosch University); demonstration of protective role against skin cancer (2005, Medical Research Council) and bioavailability studies (2006, ARC & MRC).
The official honeybush industry emerged in 1999 when the South African Honeybush Producers Association (SAHPA) was formed, later renamed as the South African Honeybush Tea Association (SAHTA). The export regulations for honeybush tea were formalised in 2000.