Potential implications of climate change for Rooibos (A. linearis) production and distribution in the greater Cederberg region, South Africa

Doctoral Thesis


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University of Cape Town

Wild plants assist in supporting human livelihoods worldwide, both within traditional systems of medicine, and as economically useful plants. Indigenous to the Fynbos biome in the north-western part of the Western Cape, South Africa is the leguminous shrub, A. linearis (rooibos), which is extensively used as ethnomedicine by local communities, while also commercially grown and exported for the herbal tea market. Being a range-restricted species, climate change poses a threat to wild plants and their dependent communities, as well as the sustainability of the rooibos industry. Climate mediated impacts on rooibos are mostly substantiated by anecdotal evidence from commercial growers and local communities and have traditionally been insufficiently addressed. This study integrates predictive modelling and empirical data to provide important insights into rooibos' plant physiological functioning in the presence of climatic and environmental constraints. The aim is to determine whether there is evidence of climate change over the rooibos distribution area, how these climate anomalies are expected to affect the species distribution and to perform experimental studies by testing plant physiological functioning of A. linearis under changing climate conditions. Analysis of climate parameters important for rooibos production (rainfall frequency and intensity, temperature extremes and wind speed) have shown that plants will experience a shorter period of water availability during winter, and prolonged exposure to summer conditions (high temperatures and water stress) in the coming decades. Under these conditions, climate envelope modelling suggests that wild and cultivated rooibos types are at risk to lose between 49.8% and 88.7% in the extent of the bio-climatically suitable localities, most notably along the western and northern periphery of the rooibos production area by 2070. Plant physiological responses (growth analysis, gas exchange parameters and leaf carbon and nitrogen isotope ratios) to the assessed climate anomalies were measured in experimental studies at glasshouse and field scale. Specific adaptation mechanisms (increasing water use efficiency, developing a higher level of sclerophylly and altering the allocation of plant reserves) which helped seedlings to survive short term drought in the glasshouse were not able to offset more severe conditions in field settings. Finally, a comparison of wild and cultivated tea has shown an apparent adaptive advantage of wild tea to tolerate increased aridity with greater water economy, and more reliance on biological nitrogen fixation for N nutrition, indicating a potentially less severe scenario of range contraction for wild types than initially indicated. This study provides a more robust prediction of rooibos plant responses to climate change factors to enable more effective adaptive planning and conservation management in a changing climate.

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