Honeybush (Cyclopia spp.) is a leguminous genus which is endemic to the Fynbos biome. It is highly recognizable during the flowering period (August - October) by its deep yellow flowers and honey-like scent (Du Toit 1998). The shrubs are normally 1.5 to 2 meters tall, but can grow up to 3 meters and are highly adapted to the nutrient poor sandy conditions of Fynbos regions. Honeybush is famous for its herbal infusion which traditionally is used as a tea and for medicinal purposes.
Cyclopia belongs to the Fabaceae family; a large legume family that also includes rooibos (Aspalathus linearis). Early revisions of Cyclopia have shown the complex taxonomy of the species: between 8 and 20 different species were recognised and between 8 and 12 varieties. The last revision of Schutte (1997) described several more species; currently the genus Cyclopia consists of 23 species without varieties. Schutte (1997) acknowledges that the taxonomy of the genus remains difficult because of species complexities and vague differences between species. The name Cyclopia is derived from the Greek ‘cyclops’ which means round-eyed referring to the central sunken area in the base of the calyx. The sunken base is a characteristic that is found in more genera, but it is the combination with trifoliate leaves that makes Cyclopia unique (Joubert et al. 2011).
Cyclopia species are characteristic pioneers. They are long-lived perennial plants with woody stems and a low leaf to stem ratio. The leaves are always trifoliate but between species they can differ from needle-like to small leaves (Du Toit, Joubert & Britz 1998). They often occur on the somewhat shadier and wetter southern slopes (Schutte 1997). In places where mist is often present they can be found on all slopes (LWTF 2011). The soil conditions have to be nutrient poor, well drained, acidic and with low amounts of nematodes (Joubert et al. 2011).
Frequent fires contribute to these conditions. Burning of vegetation causes low available nitrogen and high light availability (Schutte et al. 1995). As a pioneer Cyclopia species are well adapted to cope with post- fire conditions. Two different survival strategies exist; re-sprouting (also referred to as sprouters) and non-sprouting (plants of this type are also referred to as reseeders, or seeders). The resprouters have a thick lignotuber (rootstock) that stores resources and that can sustain the plant in the event of fire; after fire the plant is able to grow back from resources stored in the lignotuber (e.g. C. intermedia). The non-sprouters invest more energy in above ground biomass and produce more seeds than their resprouting counterparts. Immediately after fire the many seeds rapidly germinate from the seedbank (e.g. C. subternata). All species have seeds that are hard shelled and germinate best after scarification (Schutte et al. 1995).
Both resprouters and non-sprouters set seed every year, but resprouters have a low seedset compared with that of non-sprouters. Besides its adaptation to fire, Cyclopia is able to fix nitrogen which is an advantage to the plants when N is limited. In order to fix N it develops a symbiosis with Rhizobia in root nodules. However it seems that Honeybush is out-competed in later successional stages when fire is absent for a longer period (Schutte et al. 1995). Gradually more N becomes available to other plants and P becomes the limiting factor. P is harder for Cyclopia to capture because it invests less in underground biomass (Power 2010).
Generally re-sprouters are more suitably thought of as generalists than non-sprouters and are to be found throughout the natural distribution area of Cyclopia (Schutte at al. 1995). Because of regrowth from meristematic tissue near the base of the plant, they often have a multistemmed base. Non-sprouters are usually more prevalent at places with more favourable conditions (e.g. wetter areas). Some species (e.g. C. pubescens, a non-sprouter) even migrate through an area because seedlings do not grow well close to adult plants.
Cyclopia is endemic to the Fynbos biome which only occurs in the Cape Floristic Region. It is most commonly found in coastal and mountainous regions along the Western and Eastern Cape Provinces of South Africa. Fynbos is distributed from Nieuwoudtville in the Northern Cape to Port Elizabeth in the Eastern Cape but known occurrence of Cyclopia ranges from Darling to Port Elizabeth (Joubert et al. 2011). The northern boundary is made up by the mountain ranges of the Cederberg, Koue Bokkeveld, Klein Swartberg, Groot Swartberg and Kouga. However single species do not occur throughout the entire extent of the distribution area. Cyclopia intermedia (also called ‘bergtee’ which means mountain tea in Afrikaans) occurs mainly in the mountainous areas of the Eastern Cape (Kouga and Langeberg) and some higher regions in the Western Cape (e.g. Cederberg). In the wetter areas in the Eastern Cape Cyclopia subternata (also called ‘vleitee’ which means marsh tea in Afrikaans) is the most common (Joubert et al. 2011). In the Western Cape Cyclopia is mostly distributed on wetter southern slopes (C. sessiflora, C. maculata) and in the coastal Fynbos (C. genistoides also called ‘kustee’ which means coast tea).
In recent years honeybush has become a new attraction in the herbal tea industry, meaning that honeybush species have been developed into a market resource. Several research institutions (primarily ARC and SANBI) have studied the species in recent years. In the past 10 years increased demand has boosted production from 50 to 200 tons (Joubert et al. 2011).
Most of the industry is located in the Eastern Cape where large quantities of Honeybush grow (on farms) in the Outeniqua, Tsitsikamma, Langkloof (C. subternata) and Kouga (C. intermedia) (Bienabe 2010) with significant contributions to local employment. The industry consists primarily of larger-scale producers and processors. Some cultivation exists with C. subternata and C. genistoides as most important commercial species, although up to 90% of the other species (especially C. intermedia) are wild harvested. Increasing market demand is putting the wild harvested species under great pressure, as very few hectares are currently under cultivation. This describes the current situation in the Langkloof, where C. intermedia (bergtee) and C. subternata (vleitee) are being harvested from the wild in large quantities without formal harvesting guidelines and without proper management in place.
Over-exploitation and depletion of this valuable resource is certain if no support is provided for sustainable harvesting and farming practices. In the long run this poses a risk to the livelihoods of local people that have gradually became dependent on the honeybush industry, and many current producers and their employees are likely to lose a valuable source of income (Ntutela et. al. 2006). There is thus a need to undertake a participatory process for increasing collective awareness and supporting action; allied to quantifying the resource. Developing sustainable harvesting and management practices for Honeybush is of utmost importance.
Authors: Luuk Huijgen, Silvia Weel & Eberhard van der Merwe (2012)