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What Is a Honeybush?

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  • Written By: Rebecca Cartwright
  • Edited By: S. Pike
  • Last Modified Date: 10 November 2016
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A honeybush is any one of a number of species of woody shrubs in the genus Cyclopia. This genus is endemic to the fynbos ecoregion of South Africa. There are about 23 species of Cyclopia but only a handful are used to produce honeybush tea, a traditional South African herb tea. Honeybush tea was traditionally produced from Cyclopia genestoides, also known by the common names coastal tea, kustee, honeybush tea and heuningbos. Commercial production, however, is mostly from C. intermedia, common name bergtee, and C subternata, also called vleitee.

The Cyclopia genus is a member of the Fabaceae family of plants. All of the members are woody shrubs and grow across the south/southwestern Cape coastal region of South Africa. That area is mixed heathland and shrubby scrub land that has a Mediterranean climate characterized by hot dry summers and mild, wetter, winters. Fire is a common natural occurrence, and many Cyclopia species have seeds which sprout best after exposure to fire, or return readily from the root after the top burns.

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Shrubs in the Cyclopia genus grow up to 39 inches (1 m) in height. They have green and gold stems which vary in shade from species to species. All have yellow, fragrant, flowers, and narrow, hairless leaves composed of three smaller leaflets; on some the leaves are narrow enough to look like needles. They grow best in well-drained soil in full sun and do not tolerate hard frosts. Most of the species occur in small areas within the fynbos region and are particularly adapted to growing in one type of situation, for instance on steep hills or in more rocky areas.

Honeybush tea is made from the cut twigs and leaves of the shrub. The wet material is shredded, or chopped, then traditionally was collected in piles which heated up and fermented the plant material. Once fermented, the tea is spread out in the sun to dry. Modern production techniques use temperature controlled ovens for the fermentation stage, but the best honeybush tea still is finished by sun drying.

The tea has a fruity, honeylike sweetness and smell. It contains no caffeine, is low in tannins, has trace amounts of minerals and is rich in compounds identified as antioxidants and antimutagenics. Brewing honeybush tea is similar to brewing black tea but it is often simmered to develop the flavor. Traditionally it was served with cream and sugar, but many find the taste quite sweet enough without additional sweetener.

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