Dr Hannes de Lange: A reflection on the pioneering days

"I was introduced to honeybush tea in the early 1960s as field official of the South African Cooperative Citrus Scholarship, when I was placed in Patensie, a small town in the Gamtoos Valley. During my visits to George Malan, chairman of the local citrus cooperation, his wife, Kintie, always had a kettle of honeybush tea brewing on their coal stove. From here onwards, I became a life-long drinker of this tea," De Lange remembers. The tea was previously known as 'three-day tea', as the spent leaves could repeatedly be used by adding water after decanting the tea. The infusion was kept warm on the side of an AGA stove, for example, as off odours and flavours formed when leaves were left in the kettle for a few days at room temperature.

"In these early days, there was no commercial cultivation of honeybush. People living in different fynbos areas, harvested the plant from wild populations for their own use. Sometimes, the tea was sold at farm stalls. In 1965, the Malan family showed me C. intermedia growing in the nearby Hanekam Mountain. I made my own small home-made batch by sweating finely cut, wetted plant material in a black plastic bag – and to this day, that was the best tea I have ever tasted."

Following his postgraduate studies at the University of Pretoria, De Lange worked as a citrus researcher in Nelspruit. During this time, he purchased honeybush tea from time to time from a general dealer, but always wondered why the rooibos tea industry was going from strength to strength, but no honeybush tea industry existed.

In 1986, he accepted a position at the South African National Botanical Institute (SANBI) at the Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden, Cape Town, to establish a tissue culture unit for the multiplication of endangered fynbos plants. "After completion of the assignment early 1992, I knew that the time has arrived for my yearning wish to initiate a honeybush tea industry,' De Lange recalls. And on 19 February 1992, De Lange presented the planned propagation project titled 'Cyclopia species: Initiation of commercial plantings and studying of its conservation' at SANBI, Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden. The project was launched on 23 February 1992.

PHOTO_6.jpgHoneybush pioneer Dr Hannes de Lange in 5th place from left at a honeybush information day, held on 20 October 1993 in Joubertina, Langkloof. Fltr: Bruce McKenzie, Johan Beyers, Trevor Blamire, Wessel du Plessis, Hannes de Lange, Frans du Toit, Scheltema Nortjé. Insert: Sam van der Merwe. Photo supplied by Hannes de Lange.

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Dr Hannes de Lange: A reflection on the pioneering days


Commercialisation of Cyclopia genistoides – a story that originated at the foot of Table Mountain


The advancing role of research in growing the honeybush industry


Research on honeybush cultivation


Research on honeyush tea processing


Local growth and the start of an international footprint


Looking into the future … Dr Hannes de Lange, Pioneer of the formal honeybush industry, December 2020


A vision for the honeybush industry: Joyene Isaacs, chairperson Agricultural Research Council Board | Former HOD Western Cape Department of Agriculture, March 2021


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Sources of information




Honeybush Homepage


Groundwork and humble beginnings

De Lange was told by Martin Bootsman, a veterinarian in Kareedouw, that there were a few farmers in the Langkloof and Kouga mountains who harvested honeybush from the mountains and produced tea on a small scale. "I had the privilege to meet and work with these farmers, people like Johan Beyers, Scheltema Nortjé and his son, Quinton, and Wessel du Plessis."

In 1993, De Lange approached Dr Stappies Staphorst at the Agricultural Research Council (ARC) Research Institute for Plant Protection in Pretoria, regarding the development of an effective Rhizobium inoculant for seedlings and rooted cuttings to aid development of nitrogen-fixing root nodules. Jacomina Bloem was assigned to the project, and De Lange took her to numerous wild honeybush populations to take root samples. The most effective Rhizobium was collected in a C. intermedia population on the farm of Piet Vermaak in the Garcia Pass area, near Riversdale. It was later produced commercially.

"I was the only researcher in this project during this early phase, and therefore involved in all aspects of cultivation and processing," De Lange remembers. Until this stage, fermentation for commercial production only occurred through spontaneous heat generation in so-called 'curing heaps'. However, ovens have been used on a small scale in households.

De Lange also recalls how the much-loved South African essay writer, Audrey Blignault, wrote about 'heuningtee' in her collection of essays, recalling how, back in the 1920s, the plant material was moistened and cured in an outside oven belonging to her parents who lived in Zoar, near Ladismith.

Together with the farmers of the Langkloof and Kouga Mountains, De Lange was involved in the process of moving away from the traditional curing heaps which often resulted in incomplete fermentation and extensive mould growth. They opted for external heating of the cut plant material to increase fermentation temperatures for improved product quality. In 1993, Johan Beyers started fermenting C. subternata on a small commercial scale in ovens as an alternative to the traditional fermentation heaps used in the Langkloof at that stage. This has steered the later application of the rotary stainless steel drum, a concept developed by Prof Lizette Joubert, principal researcher at ARC Infruitec-Nietvoorbij, Stellenbosch.

Seed from various Cyclopia species was collected. Initial studies on different Cyclopia species and nursery aspects were performed at Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden. Approximately 200 000 seedlings were established in small-scale plantations in more than 60 locations throughout the fynbos area from Gqeberha (formerly Port Elizabeth) in the Eastern Cape, to Kunje in the Koue Bokkeveld, a region of the Western Cape. De Lange reminds us that, at the time, "there was no manual and most of the plantings were a complete failure". It was only in the following years, that a formula for honeybush cultivation was established.

Johan Beyers experimented with the fermentation of honeybush plant material in a brick oven on Eenzaamheid Farm, Noll, Upper Langkloof area, in the early 1990s. Beyers was the first to export honeybush to Japan (1993) and Germany (1995). Photo supplied by Hannes de Lange.
Dr Hannes de Lange and his assistant, Edward Jacobs, preparing honeybush seed boxes at the honeybush nursery of SANBI at Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden, Cape Town. Photo supplied by Hannes de Lange.
The honeybush nursery against the slopes of Table Mountain in the Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden, where seedlings were grown for about 60 trial plantations in the Western and Eastern Cape. Photo supplied by Hannes de Lange.

Introduction to ARC researchers

In 1994, De Lange met with Dr Piet van Rooyen, former director of ARC Infruitec-Nietvoorbij, Stellenbosch, and said that this project would require the input of more agricultural researchers. Prof Lizette Joubert was asked to attend a presentation on honeybush tea by De Lange at Stellenbosch University. "I met her after the presentation," he remembers. "Little could I have known that she would play a leading role in the processing of honeybush tea and the important role player she would be in this project."

As honeybush tea was only known in limited areas at this stage, De Lange decided to package and distribute the tea for marketing and funding purposes. Together with his technical assistant, Edward Jacobs, they purchased honeybush tea from Johan Beyers, which they packaged and marketed in 'Kirstenbosch'-packaging. Various outlets were obtained through his numerous research trips. In addition, exhibition stalls were organised at numerous farmers' days and other gatherings in the Western and Eastern Cape, where packaged tea was sold, and information was handed out to interested farmers. The first meeting of producers was held on 29 October 1993 at Joubertina, which was organised by De Lange and agricultural extension officer of the Langkloof, Sam van der Merwe.

"After the initial failed plantings, there were also success stories. In 1996, the first commercial harvest of a C. subternata plantation took place on Waboomskraal near George, and the tea was processed by Johan Beyers. The seedlings for this plantation were cultivated during the previous year in Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden. Another success story is that of the commercialisation of C. genistoides on the farm Toekomst, near Bredasdorp. The seeds of a particularly beautiful C. genistoides bush in the Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden were grown, and the seedlings were supplied to Van Zyl Joubert of this farm", De Lange recalls.

In 1997, De Lange initiated a conservation action for a highly endangered species, C. longifolia. For the previous 130 years, this species was thought to be extinct. However, in 1994, it was re-discovered in the Eastern Cape by an amateur botanist, Noel Gray. Approximately 400 seedlings were grown in Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden, whereafter it was re-introduced in the wild near Thornhill in the Eastern Cape.

In 1999, De Lange retired from SANBI at Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden and continued as contract researcher at the ARC for several years. "At this stage, there were many people entering the honeybush industry and the organisational ability of the ARC has granted a great driving force to the development of the industry," he says.

De Lange was named honorary member of the South African Honeybush Tea Association (SAHTA) in 2002. More recently, in 2019, he received an Academic Medal (Gold) from the 'SA Akademie vir Wetenskap en Kuns' for inter alia his contribution in plant conservation and research, and for his initiation of the honeybush tea industry.

"No instructions regarding honeybush tea were given to me. What I have done originated from my Gamtoos-experience, my love for this beverage, my ideal that an industry must be established, and the challenge involved." - Dr Hannes de Lange, honeybush pioneer.


'Kirstenbosch Honeybush tea' package – a marketing initiative by Dr Hannes de Lange in the early 1990s to raise consumer awareness and to obtain funding for research. Photo supplied by ARC.​


Johan Beyers with honeybush plants germinated by Dr Hannes de Lange for trials on farms of interested farmers. Beyers produced honeybush tea for the 'Kirstenbosch Honeybush tea' package. Photo by Hannes de Lange. ​


Prof Lizette Joubert (left), pioneer of honeybush processing research, at the sun-drying racks of fermented honeybush tea, during a visit to the farm Nooitgedacht, Langkloof, in the 1990s. Honeybush farmer and processor, Quinton Nortjé, is on the right. Photo by Hannes de Lange.​


Dr Hannes de Lange (left) and Dr Cecilia Bester (right) both played formative roles in the establishment of breeding and cultivation of honeybush. Photo supplied by ARC.​