What do an aviation medical doctor, a greenhouse owner, a realtor, and a retired high school biology teacher all have in common? The answer is rhodiola, a small, medicinal succulent plant with the potential to be the next big, commercial crop in Alaska. Each of these people has the interest and enthusiasm to make that happen.
Rhodiola as medicine
Rhodiola (Rhodiola rosea), also called arctic root, goldenroot, and roseroot, was named for the rose-like fragrance of its freshly cut root. As a medicinal plant, its use dates back in China and Tibet thousands of years. This plant thrives in higher latitudes along an arctic/sub-arctic band around the world. Its medicinal use by everyone from Vikings to modern athletes and even Cosmonauts aboard the International Space Station is well documented. The Native Inuit people mix the leaves and buds of rhodiola with seal and whale fat to ward off scurvy and give them energy.
So, what are the medicinal properties of this plant and its roots? The formal term used is “adaptogen,” meaning it helps people adapt and resist physical and environmental stresses. It has been used to improve athletic performance, endurance and recovery, and mental stamina. The scientific evidence originates mostly from Scandinavia, Germany, Russia, and France with studies going back hundreds of years. More than 200 research studies have investigated rhodiola’s properties in the past 50 years.
In the 1980s, rhodiola was overharvested in northern Russia and China, and other wild species were substituted, creating a variable and subpar product. The wild harvest of rhodiola is now intensely regulated in many countries, often to the point of total prohibition in some regions to protect the wild populations. With rhodiola capsules selling for upwards of $40 a bottle on Amazon, there’s much motivation to develop a sustainable crop in North America. Cultivation has become necessary to meet the growing industry demand; yet it is a challenging crop to scale up commercially. The seeds have a low germination rate, and the seedlings grow very slowly into mature plants. To sustain a long-term yield, it must be planted in rotating plots annually.
Rhodiola in Alaska
In 2010, aviation medical specialist Dr. Petra Illig started a farmers’ cooperative to promote rhodiola farming; then in 2015, she formed a company called Alaska Rhodiola to also promote sales of locally grown rhodiola for products such as tinctures, capsules, tea, and cosmetics. One of the early hurdles was where and how to locally process the roots. That’s where Al Poindexter and the Anchor Point Greenhouse entered the picture. In typical Alaskan fashion, Poindexter engineered equipment and a process to clean the harvested roots, chop them up, and dry them at his commercial greenhouses. The plant can then be processed into the finished herbal/medicinal products. Poindexter has also been trying to produce seedlings economically and determine what is needed to grow the crop in fields originally converted from native spruce forest.
Enter young realtor Patricia O’Neil, raised in a family of California almond growers, as an enterprising Alaskan farmer willing to try something new and diversify her crop. She and her husband have invested in 80 acres in the Matanuska Valley. Why rhodiola? O’Neil likes that they are hardy plants of Alaskan origin, not very vulnerable to disease and pests, but with the potential of economic return in the long run. She also likes being on the cutting edge of agriculture in Alaska. Only about a dozen farmers are cultivating less than 100 acres of rhodiola here. Most of the growers are small family farms like that of O’Neil and belong to a local cooperative.
The biggest challenge to growth in the industry is growth itself—growth of the plants, that is. It can take three to five years for the plants to reach maturity for harvest. Research is kicking in with a grant to the State Plant Materials Center and the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ Matanuska Experiment Farm and Extension Center. Experts are trying to create a consistent, true-to-type rhodiola variety to become the industry standard. Along with that, they are experimenting with organic fertilizers, water regimens, herbicides, and soil amendments to optimize plant growth in the fields.
Carl Edwards, a retired high school biology teacher, is tackling the same problem from a different angle, using high pressure aeroponics. He can speed up growth of the seedlings’ roots tenfold over a three-month period in a mist environment without the use of soil. Aeroponics allows for a quicker selection of the most robust and healthiest plants, allowing Edwards to also work toward a “supergrower” cultivar.
In 2013, a pound of dried rhodiola root was worth $15, but the demand for medicinal use has driven it up to $45 per pound—and the price is still rising. Ideally, everyone would like to see a local facility producing a consistent, faster growing variety on a large scale, along with in-state manufacturing to turn the roots into finished products. Then the farmers would fill in the middle stage of the process in their fields; it would be a win-win scenario.
Who else would benefit if rhodiola becomes a more common Alaskan crop? The local pollinator bees and butterflies who love these early blooming flowers. Who knows—perhaps next in the product line-up could be medicinal rhodiola honey.