The honeybush plant probably owes its name to the yellow, honey-scented flowers that cover the bushes during spring. Long ago, some communities use to include the flowers when they processed tea and called it “blommetjiestee” (flower tea). Today we know that the flowers are not required for the characteristic sweet aroma and flavour of the tea and that the tea can be harvested before flowering.
Honeybush is part of South Africa’s unique fynbos biome. The bushes grow wild in the Western and Eastern Cape provinces in an area ranging from Piketberg to Port Elizabeth. The 23 known honeybush species – all belonging to the genus Cyclopia – each have a characteristic distribution in nature. Some species prefer sandy, coastal plains, while others flourish on cool and moist mountain slopes.
Most of South Africa’s honeybush crop comes from people harvesting wild-growing honeybush – especially Cyclopia intermedia (“bergtee”). A small, but growing number of farmers grow specific species, such as Cyclopia subternata (“vleitee”) and Cyclopia genistoides (“kustee”, also known as coastal tea) commercially.
At harvest time, people cut the shoots (leaves and twigs) of the plant and gather the honeybush branches in bundles. At the processing plant, they chop up the plant material and then sweat (or ferment) it to develop its characteristic taste and colour. The final steps involve drying, sieving, grading and packaging of the honeybush tea.
Each honeybush species has a different flavour profile. Processors often blend two or more species to ensure a more consistent product.
To make “green” honeybush, the fermentation process is skipped, resulting in a lighter-coloured tea that does not have the characteristic sweet flavour of the traditional tea. However, green honeybush tea has a higher antioxidant activity and is therefore popular with health-conscious consumers, as well as for applications in cosmetics and functional foods.
Natural distribution of honeybush species in South Africa