Ecotypes of wild rooibos (<eAspalathus linearis</em> (Burm. F) Dahlg. Fabaceae) are ecologically distinct

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South African Journal of Botany

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University of Cape Town

Aspalathus linearis (Burm. F) Dahlg., Fabaceae is cultivated by small- and large-scale commercial farmers of the Cederberg and Bokkeveld Plateau in the Cape Floristic Region of South Africa, for the production of an herbal beverage called 'rooibos' or 'rooibos tea'. Small-scale farmers also harvest A. linearis from the wild and market the tea as an organic and fair-trade certified product. However, little is known about the apparent ecotypes of wild A. linearis. We hypothesized that 1) rooibos ecotypes are ecologically distinct (occurring in different plant communities defined by environmental variables); 2) rooibos ecotypes are functionally distinct due to variance in water use efficiency; and 3) rooibos ecotypes are associated with threatened vegetation types/species, making populations of wild rooibos ecotypes worthy of conservation. Ecotypes of wild rooibos were identified based on plant habit and local knowledge. Plant communities were classified using Twinspan, environmental factors were tested as predictors of ecotype distribution and water use efficiency of ecotypes growing across a rainfall gradient was determined from foliar natural abundance of 13C. Wild rooibos was not generally associated with endangered vegetation types but was associated with plant species having endangered status. Wild rooibos occurred in four plant communities and comprised five wild rooibos ecotypes: shrub, tree, upright, salignus and prostrate types. Although some ecotypes clearly co-occurred, evidence is provided for habitat preference between the ecotypes: Prostrate and upright ecotypes occurred at higher elevations (>400–600 m). Shrub ecotypes occurred at lower rainfall sites (<200 mm p.a.) and the salignus ecotype occurred at higher rainfall sites (>500 mm p.a.). Foliar 13C indicated greater water use efficiencies by ecotypes in relatively drier areas. The extent to which this is a plastic or inherent response requires further investigation. Considering that wild rooibos ecotypes differ both ecologically and possibly also functionally and genetically, it is concluded that populations of wild rooibos ecotypes should be considered as distinct and worthy of conservation. This distinctness should be considered when farmers apply for both harvesting and ploughing rights on land with wild rooibos ecotypes.