Rooibos is a leguminous shrub that grows only in South Africa's Cedarberg Mountains and in the vicinity of Clanwilliam and Citrusdal. A caffeine-free and low-tannin tea made from the red-colored leaves has reportedly been drunk by the San people of its homeland for centuries and is used to relieve constipation, for various types of inflammatory dermatitis and for milk allergies in babies.
Studies carried out in South Africa suggest that it may help protect against free radical damage that can lead to varying types of cancer and heart problems.
According to Rooibos International, sales have "increased exponentially over the past four years", with worldwide export sales growing by 400 percent between 1998 and 2003. However, the US still lags behind Europe and Japan in terms of sales of the tea.
Burke International markets a tea product and a personal care line in the United States under the name Annique Rooibos.
The surrender of the trademark comes six months after the resolution of a lawsuit brought against Burke by The Republic of Tea against Burke, in which a US District Court ruled that the trademark was invalid and should be cancelled.
Of the surrender, Michael McGuffin, president of the American Herbal Products Association (AHPA), said: "This outcome represents an important precedent."
Together with South African exporter Rooibos Ltd, AHPA had petitioned the USPTO to cancel the trademark on the grounds that rooibos is a common name for the plant, and it should not be the exclusive right of any one company to use it.
"AHPA will continue to be vigilant in preventing any individual company from claiming the sole right to use an established common name for any plant in commerce," added McGuffin.
Last year Symrise Research carried out antioxidant efficacy tests on Neo-Extrapone Organic Rooibos and determine that it is just as effective as green tea - a finding which it said could lead to more widespread use in cosmetics to satisfy the growing demand for effective, naturally-derived ingredients.
That is certainly good news for the recently-formed South African Cosmetics Export Council, which takes international promotion of the benefits of rooibos in topical applications as one of its key missions.