Seeding Honeybush in the Wild

Photo Credit: Green Trust

The Langkloof Valley is a large deciduous-fruit farming area that extends for many kilometres along the R62 and between the Tsitsikamma and Kouga Mountains where wild honeybush grows.

Honeybush is harvested to make a refreshing tea that is rich in antioxidants. It is not well known in South Africa as the market is mostly international, consisting predominantly of Germany and Japan, with their strong traditions of drinking herbal tea. Honeybush has a softer taste than our well-known rooibos tea; some tea connoisseurs like to pair it with rooibos, saying rooibos is more masculine and honeybush more feminine.

Unlike rooibos, honeybush is difficult to cultivate, and of the approximately 390 tons of honeybush tea produced in the Langkloof every year, 80% is harvested from the wild. This calls for sustainable harvesting, together with holistic management of the Tsitsikamma and Kouga fynbos mountain area in which the harvesting occurs.

‘These mountains are the catchments for the Kouga and Krom Rivers and the Kouga and Churchill Dams – strategic water source areas for Port Elizabeth – and are critical for both water security and biodiversity in the region,’ says Project Manager Liz Metcalfe, who is leading the Langkloof team of five for Living Lands, the organisation partnering with the WWF Nedbank Green Trust on this project. The project is focusing on honeybush in a drive to improve veld management of the farming land owned by Langkloof farmers in the Tsitsikamma and Kouga mountain areas.

‘In early 2020 we started the WWF Nedbank Green Trust project to grow honeybush from seed in the wild in order to augment the resident wild populations,’ Metcalfe explains. The most heavily wild-harvested of the 23 honeybush species is bergtee or mountain tea (Cyclopia intermedia), which requires a recovery time between harvests of approximately four years (under normal climatic conditions, and assuming no veld fires occur). Illegal harvesting and overharvesting reduce the inter-harvest period and ultimately lead to population decline.

‘To increase the growth of this species in situ, we will collect Cyclopia intermedia seeds from the wild and plant them at five test sites in the mountain fynbos, where we will monitor them over three years to see if this species augmentation experiment was successful,’ says Metcalfe. Honeybush is fire-germinated, which is mimicked by putting the seeds in boiling water. Seeds from a specific population are planted back in the area of that population to keep the genetics intact.

‘We value Living Lands’ way of working as they have spent three years gaining an understanding of the landscape and the socioeconomic and ecological aspects of the local honeybush tea industry in this region,’ says the Programme Manager of WWF’s Land Programme, Jan Coetzee.

‘Landscape-wide conservation in South Africa depends on strong partnerships with landowners and we are highly appreciative that Nedbank through the WWF Nedbank Green Trust sees the value in funding this kind of catalytic project.’ By focusing on honeybush and its landscape, the project team aims to increase awareness of and conservation efforts in the Tsitsikamma and Kouga mountains, which are being increasingly infested with invasive alien trees, which intensify fire risks.

‘Our approach is that these unique wild areas could be managed so much better and at the same time provide a product, the honeybush, that creates income for the farmers who own the land and income for the harvesters who collect the honeybush in this incredibly rugged terrain. The harshness of the landscape is said to contribute to the tastiness of this tea,’ says Metcalfe.

The project is supported by the Honeybush Community of Practice and is working closely with academic researchers who specialise in honeybush, including Gillian McGregor (Rhodes University), Annelise Schutte-Vlok (CapeNature) and Dr Shirley Pierce Cowling, who led a one-year research project funded by the WWF Nedbank Green Trust on honeybush and the associated harvesting and cultivation issues in the Eastern Cape. She completed the project at the end of 2015.

‘We are also working closely with the farmers who own the land and with some of the harvesters to develop the sustainable-harvesting plans,’ says Metcalfe. ‘Many of them have been harvesting honeybush for generations and they are exceptionally knowledgeable about the plant and the mountain terrain.’

The harvesters are the most marginalised in the honeybush value chain and for many of them it is a seasonal job in the cooler months. Many live in the townships along the Langkloof and others live on the farms. About 1 kg of raw honeybush tea has a wholesale price of about R15 and the harvesters get up to R5 of that. They harvest huge bundles, which they carry down the mountains on their backs. There are three processors in the Langkloof and three on the perimeter. From here the honeybush gets sent to the markets.

‘The harvesters are helping us to put together the resource assessments and they have also been helping with the plans for the removal of the invasive alien species,’ says Metcalfe. ‘Our dream is to show how valuable these wild areas are, and to boost water and biodiversity conservation and the livelihoods of the farmers and harvesters through this beautiful wild product.’