Effect of organic cultivation of rooibos tea plants (Aspalathus linearis) on soil nutrient status in Nieuwoudtville, South Africa

The shoots of rooibos (Aspalathus linearis (Burm.f.) R.Dahlgren) plants, cultivated organically by small-scale farmers in Nieuwoudtville, are harvested for the production of tea. These practices could lead to decreasing soil fertility. It was hypothesised that soil from cultivated rooibos plots will have lower nutrient concentrations than soil from adjacent uncultivated plots. Soil and shoot samples were collected in December 2005, 2006 and 2009 from cultivated fields of increasing plot age and from adjacent uncultivated plots on three farms, and analysed for nutrient concentration. Compared with the uncultivated plots, no measured soil nutrients including concentrations of phosphorus (P), exchangeable potassium (K), magnesium (Mg) and calcium (Ca), and soil carbon (C) decreased in cultivated plots over the five-year period of assessment. Soil C correlated positively with concentrations of soil exchangeable K, Mg and Ca, and sodium (P<0.001), indicating that soil C is an important indicator of soil fertility. Foliar P increased, and consequently the nitrogen:P ratio decreased in cultivated relative to uncultivated plants, implying higher P-uptake by cultivated plants. Overall, organic rooibos cultivation in Nieuwoudtville appears to be sustainable in terms of maintaining soil nutrition because soil nutrient status did not decrease over the five-year period.