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Honeybush Tea (Cyclopia Intermedia)

Honeybush tea is an indigenous herbal tea to South Africa, having a pleasant taste and flavour. " Heuningtee, Bergtee, Boertee, Bossiestee, Bushtea" are some of the many names the tea is called (35). According to Kies (1951), the earliest mention of the honeybush plant in botanical literature was in 1705. Although it is not clear whether the bush was used for consumption in those days, it can be assumed that the local inhabitants soon realised the health giving properties of the tea in their search for natural herbs and medicines (33).

The leaves, stems and flowers of the Cyclopia species are used to manufacture a sweet herbal infusion. The indigenous shrub, belonging to the Cape fynbos biome, grows in the coastal districts of the Western and Eastern Cape Provinces, from Darling to Port Elizabeth, being bounded on the north by the Cederberg, Koue Bokkeveld, Klein Swartberg, Groot Swartberg and Kouga mountain ranges. Cyclopia Vent. (tribe Podalyrieae) is a genus of +/- 24 species of woody legumes endemic to the fynbos region of South Africa.

Most of the species have very limited distribution ranges and special habitat preferences. Some are restricted to mountain peaks (Cyclopia burtonii, Cyclopia glabra, Cyclopia aurescens, Cyclopia bolusii, Cyclopia alpina), others to perennial streams (Cyclopia maculata, Cyclopia longifolia) or to marshy areas (Cyclopia pubescens), shalebands (Cyclopia plicata, Cyclopia alopecuroides) and wet southern slopes (Cyclopia bowieana, Cyclopia squamosa). Over the years only Cyclopia intermedia ("bergtee") and Cyclopia subternata ("vleitee") have found limited commercial application, but it is known that the Cyclopia maculata, Cyclopia genistoides and Cyclopia sessiliflora ("Heidelbergtee") species have been used for home consumption. These species, including Cyclopia meyeriana, Cyclopia pubescens, Cyclopia dregeana and Cyclopia buxifolia, are currently being evaluated for future commercialization.

The honeybush tea plant is easily recognized by its trifoliolate leaves, single-flowered inflorescences and sweetly scented, bright yellow flowers with prominent grooves on the standard petal, a thrust-in (intrusive) calyx base and two bracts fused at the base around the pedicel. The name Cyclopia is derived from the Greek words cyclos, a circle and pous, a food, which allude to the intrusive base of the calyx.

Honeybush tea plants have woody stems, a relatively low ratio of leaves to stems and hard-shelled seeds that germinate poorly if not scarified prior to germination. Leaf shape and size differ within the species, but are mostly thin, needle-like to elongated, broadish leaves. During the flowering period the bushes are easily recognized in the field as they are covered with distinctive, deep-yellow flowers, which have a characteristic sweet honey scent, from which the tea acquires its name. According to traditional methods the tea is harvested during the flowering period. Cyclopia intermedia and Cyclopia subternata flower in September/October while Cyclopia sessiliflora flowers in May/June.

Presently there are no honeybush plantings and the tea is harvested from natural populations only.

Commercialization of honeybush tea cultivation should lead to planned harvesting and more homogeneous material of predictable quality. The largest export customers of rooibos, and possible future customers of honeybush tea are Japan, Germany and Switzerland, where health drinks are particularly sought after. One of the major problems associated with the development of a reliable market is the lack of a standardized processing method. The growing export figures and an increase in local consumption has sparked off a widespread interest in the commercial growing and processing of honeybush tea (33, 34,35,36,37,38,39,40).


The manufacture of honeybush tea consists of four characteristic processing steps, harvesting, cutting, "fermentation" (oxidation) and drying.


Harvesting of honeybush tea was traditionally done during the flowering period, but with the increasing demand, some of the major producers were forced to extend the harvesting period to late summer. The gathering of material from natural field populations often takes days, since plants are harvested in the more mountainous regions of the production area, these areas are often inaccessible to normal transport. Different harvesting practices are used:

In the case of Cyclopia intermedia, a resprouter, cutting of bushes to the ground facilitates future harvesting as it reduces the occurrence of stems that die after harvesting. Bushes previously harvested give better material for processing as the stems are softer and have higher leaf to stem ratios. Older bushes that are not regularly harvested give too much coarse material due to thicker stems. Bushes in a specific area are harvested every two to three years. After a fire the bushes of Cyclopia intermedia show more growth, have more flowers and often reach one to one and half meters in height giving good material for the making of tea.



The common method is cutting of the material before "fermentation" or curing. This ensures the disruption of cellular integrity and facilitates fermentation. Leaves that are not adequately cut often retain an unacceptable green to light brown colour. Mechanized fodder cutters are used to increase productivity and to deliver a more uniform product. Processed material therefore varies between 6 mm and 3 cm length. The effectiveness of commination depends on the tea manufacturer’s equipment since customized cutters have been developed.


There are currently two distinct methods used for honeybush tea fermentation, fermentation in a curing heap and fermentation at elevated temperatures in a preheated "baking-oven".

- Heap fermentation

The common method of honeybush tea fermentation is the use of curing heap, especially when large quantities of tea are produced. A round oval shaped heap of approximately four to five meters in diameter and two meters high requires 1.5 – 2.5 ton of green honeybush material. The heap is packed firmly, covered with canvas or Hessian bags and left for three days to allow spontaneous heat generation and fermentation. Temperature build-up is quick since the heap is already warm when the final material is packed into heap.

During the fermentation period, the material changes from green to dark-brown and develops a sweet aroma. From the third day onwards the heap is turned every twelve hours to ensure that outer, cooler regions, are mixed with the rest of the material and to prevent oxygen deletion in the heap. The heap is therefore inspected after three to five days of fermentation, depending on the species used. If a sweet, honey-like aroma is present and the material has a dark-brown colour, the heap is spread open in a thin layer on canvas and allowed to dry in the sun.

- Oven fermentation

The use of a preheated oven gives a product of better and more consistent quality since better control over the temperature of the fermentation process is possible and shorter fermentation periods (24-36 h) are needed to obtain fully fermented tea, either to inhibit mould growth.

The material after being cut, was placed in Hessian bags and scalded with hot water to increase the temperature of the material before fermentation. Fires were made in the drums and after the coals were removed; the Hessian bags were placed in the drums and the openings covered. The initial temperature was high (>90 Degree) during the first few hours, but rapidly declined. Temperatures reaching 60 Degree in the inner core of fermentation heaps have been observed. The "baking-oven" allows reheating of 11 bags (ca. 35 kg each) of honeybush tea during the fermentation process without having to remove the material. At the turn of the century, "baking-ovens" were already in use for the manufacturing of honeybush tea. Cyclopia intermedia and Cyclopia subternata are fermented in a "baking-oven".




It is believed that the final product’s appearance is improved by sun drying. The tea normally takes one to two days to dry, but this depends on the thickness of the layer as well as the prevailing weather conditions.

Honeybush tea is traditionally a very coarse product, which contributes to the belief that the unrefined product has certain health giving properties. The tea is therefore often sold as a mixture a short stems and leaves. The final product is put through an electrically driven, cylindrical sieve that has a 6.5 mm aperture screen, to remove all the pieces thicker than a matchstick. Sieved honeybush tea is generally bulk packed in large, woven plastic bags for local and overseas markets, but small portion is also packed in small plastic bags for sales.



Health Effects

Honeybush tea is a herbal infusion and many health properties are associated with the regular consumption of the tea. It has very low tannin content and contains no caffeine. It is therefore especially valuable for children and patients with digestive and heart problems where stimulants and tannins should be avoided.

Nutritional Information



Function in Body

Per 240 ml


Iron (Fe)

Essential for transport of oxygen in the blood

0,3 mg

Potassium (K)

Necessary for metabolic processes


Calcium (Ca)

Necessary for strong teeth and bones


Copper (Cu)

Necessary for different metabolic processes


Zinc (Zn)

Necessary for normal growth and development and health skin


Magnesium (Mg)

Necessary for healthy nervous system and for other metabolic processes


Manganese (Mn)

Necessary for metabolic processes and for bone growth and development


Sodium (Na)

Necessary for fluid and acid-base balance


Research by the Department of Chemistry of the University of the Orange Free State indicated those substantial amounts of (+)-pinitol is present in Honeybush tea. Pinitol is used as an expectorant (42) and also has anti-diabetic activity (43).

Honeybush tea processes numerous properties that enhance the health of people that use it:

Isoflavones & Coumestans

The dietary phyto-estrogen-hormone-dependant process. This is advantageous for:

Specific Luteolin is anti-spasmodic and anti-oxidant. 4-Hydroxycinnomic acid is anti-fungus and Antihepatotoxic.



Research on Honeybush tea has only started recently in the 90’s and already great progress was made on testing and researching the medicinal values of this tea. De Nysschen et al found 1995 three major phenolic compounds in honeybush tealeaves: a xanthone c-glycoside, mangiferin and O-glycosides of hesperitin and isosakuranetin, two flavanones (39).

Honeybush tea is normally consumed with milk and sugar, but to appreciate the delicate sweet taste and flavour, no milk or sugar should be added. Descriptions of the flavour vary from that of hot apricot jam, floral, honey-like and dried fruit mix with the overall impression of sweetness. The tea has the added advantage that the cold infusion can also be used as iced tea and that it blends well with fruit juices. Honeybush tea is prepared by boiling about 4-6 g of the dried material (approximately 2-3 tablespoonfuls) per liter for 20 minutes.