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biodiversity explorer

the web of life in southern Africa

Food and drink biodiversity:


The following species of plants are commonly used in drinks in southern Africa:

Agave tequilana (Tequila plant, Blue agave)

Family: Agavaceae > Genus: Agave

Indigenous to Mexico. The stems of the Tequila plant (which look like spiny, succulent leaves) are harvested just prior to the emergence of the flowering stalk, which is when the sugar levels of the plant sap are at their highest. Tequila is made from the sap that is extracted and can only be called tequila if it originates from Tequila plants from the Guadalajara region of SW Mexico. An agave worm (termed maguey worm or gusano) is added to each bottle to show that the alcohol levels are high enough for the worm not to rot. The Tequila plant is not cultivated in southern Africa but is included here because people in southern Africa do drink tequila.


Agave americana (Century plant, Maguey, American aloe)

Family: Agavaceae > Genus: Agave

Indigenous to Mexico.Grown extensively in the karoo, South Africa where it is harvested for the productions of agava, which is an alcoholic drink produced in a similar manner to tequila.


Camellia sinensis (Tea)


Cichorium intybus (Chicory)

Originates in Europe and western Asia. There are three main varieties: Wild chicory is a weed (including in southern Africa) and has medicinal properties, Belgium endive is eaten in a similar way to lettuce, and the roots of Coffee chicory are used as a coffee additive or substitute.


Coffea arabica (Arabian coffee, Arabica coffee)

A shrub or small tree with clusters of two-seeded fruit (the seeds being the 'coffee beans') that are red or purple when ripe. Indigenous to Ethiopia but the commercialisation of coffee as a drink has its origins in Arabia (Yemen), which had a monopoly over the market from about 1400 to 1700 AD. Coffee is now produced worldwide in tropical regions but most of the production is from Brazil and Colombia. Coffee is drunk mainly because of the stimulating effects of caffeine - a typical cup of coffee has about 150 mg of this addictive substance. However, many people simply like its taste and smell, hence the popularity of decaffeinated coffee.

Cola acuminata (Cola nut tree or Abata kola)

Family: Malvaceae

This tree is indigenous to West Africa and the seeds, termed cola nuts, are chewed for their stimulatory effect, caused by caffeine and small amounts of theobromine. Cola soft drinks were originally flavoured with cola nut extracts but synthetic chemicals are now used.


Hordeum vulgare (Barley)


Humulus lupulus (Hop)


Malus domestica (Domestic apple)


Saccharum officinarum (Sugar cane)


Vitis vinifera (Grapevine)


Drinks from plant species indigenous to southern Africa

Adansonia digitata (Baobab)

The dried fruit pulp is turned to powder and mixed with water to form


Agathosma betulina (Buchu, Round-leafed buchu)

Leaves, leaf extracts and oil are used in herbal teas, iced teas and liqueurs. Buchu brandy is a traditional drink in South Africa.


Aspalathus linearis (Rooibos tea)

Indigenous to the Western Cape, South Africa. Rooibos tea is derived from the leaves and twigs of this plant and was a drink developed by the local Khoi people. In 1904, a Russian immigrant and tea merchant by the name of Benjamin Ginsberg started buying the tea from the Khoi and marketing it commercially. Rooibos tea has now become a popular tea in many parts of the world because it contains no stimulants and in particular, no caffeine. To produce the tea, the leaves and twigs are harvested, crushed by hammering to promote a fermentation process, and dried. Further processing to package it in tea bags is the norm these days. 


Cyclopia genistoides (Honey bush tea, Heuningtee)