The Web sites selling sweet-smelling honeybush tea proudly proclaim its supposed health benefits, which range from lowering cholesterol and improving respiration to controlling the symptoms of menopause. Although none of these claims have been evaluated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, there is some minor research backing up a few of these benefits. That could be why U.S. imports of honeybush tea from South Africa have soared in recent years. According to a presentation at the Fynbos Forum last year, 180 metric tons of honeybush tea is produced every year, up from just 27 metric tons in 1997.
Three quarters of that production comes from wild plants, which are being harvested unsustainably. A recent report from the South African Broadcasting Corp. (SABC) issued a warning that this unsustainable harvest puts honeybush at risk of extinction—at least for the one species (Cyclopia intermedia) used to make tea as well as the five other species harvested for other commercial purposes. (There are 23 species altogether, most of which have extremely limited ranges.) The plants grow only in a small, mountainous region of the Western Cape province of South Africa known as the fynbos.
But Richard Cowling, distinguished professor in the Department of Botany at Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University in Port Elizabeth, doesn't think wild harvesting will lead to extinction. He points out that most of the tea industry is moving toward controlled agriculture rather than wild extraction, a major change in decades of business practice. Indeed, one company told SABC it now gets 90 percent of its tea from plantations such as the Heights Tea Estate, which currently has 1,000 hectares of sustainably cultivated tea plants. This isn't moving fast enough, however. SABC reports that international demand for honeybush tea still exceeds supply.
The industry, which expanded so quickly, still has some growing to do in order to ensure its continued survival. Suggestions for continued improvement made at last year's Fynbos Forum included certifying growers, establishing veld-harvesting guidelines and fair labor practices to protect wild plants. Cowling, who presented at the conference, also recommended that South African companies invest in processing their own tea. Currently 90 percent of honeybush is shipped out of the country in bulk form, limiting the annual value of the crop to just over $250,000. Processing the plants in-country could increase profits, which in turn could increase opportunities to cultivate honeybush and reduce reliance on wild plants.
Meanwhile, even if the establishment of plantations and cultivated plants eases pressure on the fynbos, wild honeybush plants aren't out of the woods. Cowling reports that a bigger threat to wild honeybush is actually invasive species. "The principal culprits," he tells me via email, "are Australia wattles (Acacia spp.) and pines (mainly Pinus radiata from California)." These tall invaders create too much shade for the smaller (90-centimeter), sun-dependent indigenous shrubs in the fynbos region. That would affect not just the valuable tea plants, but potentially all of the other species in the region.
Photos: Bulk honeybush tea by Akuppa John Wigham. Honeybush tea infusion by inazakira. Both via Flickr and used under Creative Commons license