My former student and friend Maggie Heine of Louisville, Kentucky kindly agreed to contribute to Creative Sanctuary this month. Her thoughtful piece celebrates autumn, rooibos, and wanderlust. Thank you, sweet Maggie!
If you ever find yourself in southernmost South Africa, pay attention to its strange, shrubby fields. You may happen to see an odd little plant with needle-like leaves, covered with tiny golden flowers. Aspalathus linearis. You won’t find this bush, somewhat unremarkable at first glance, growing anywhere else in the world—farmers ranging from China to the U.S. have tried to harvest it in their home countries and failed. That’s because of the wonderfully strange ecology of South Africa’s Cape region: our planet is composed of six floristic kingdoms, or geographic areas with relatively similar plant species. If you’re reading this, chances are that you’re in the gigantic Holarctic kingdom, which comprises the vast majority of North America, Europe, and Asia. The Cape kingdom, on the other hand, is miniscule, containing only the very southernmost tip of the African continent. Despite its small size, it’s extraordinarily rich, and the majority of plants that call this kingdom home can only be found in that dot on the tip of South Africa.
The entire area is beautiful beyond comprehension, nearly extraterrestrial with its mountains that jut up against the sea, its preponderance of baboons and ostriches, its wide blue skies that become enveloped in clouds in an instant. Now that fall has finally arrived, I find myself thinking about that remote speck and all of its ecological strangeness regularly. I’ve been to South Africa twice, once in the southern hemisphere’s winter, and once in its early spring. During these trips, about six weeks in total, I was rarely without a cup of tea clasped between my hands. This brings us back to Aspalathus linearis, or as it’s commonly known, rooibos. When its leaves are plucked, dried, and steeped, they create an infusion that’s smooth, nutty, and the slightest bit sweet. It’s sold en masse in South Africa like we sell our Lipton green tea—clearly, it’s nothing fancy, but it’s my constant companion when the weather turns chilly. I love the drink for its flavor, but it’s also more than that. For me, rooibos is the feeling of bundling up at daybreak to search for zebras and lions from an open-sided Jeep; it’s looking out over the expanse of the ocean from 4,000 feet up a mountainside; it’s falling asleep to the sound of rain on an old tin roof. It’s South Africa, in all its botanically bizarre wonder.