A long row to hoe: Growing Rhodiola in Alaska
Rhodiola Rosea is an herbal supplement that has been used around the world for centuries. The plant grows wild in the sub-Arctic, including Russia and China. A close cousin—rhodiola integrifolia—grows wild in Alaska and can be found in Hatcher Pass.
In 2008, Dr. Petra Illig read an article about the herb and how the plant was threatened because most of the world’s harvest came from the wild. It resonated with her and reminded her of a conversation she’d recently had about how Alaskan farmers struggled because they kept growing things that didn’t want to grow here.
“Therefore, hoop houses, green houses, a lot of expensive infrastructure,” said Illig. “And here's a plant that could actually take advantage of our environment and not require all this heavy investment in infrastructure and so I thought, I wonder if we can grow it in farms.”
The Matanuska Experiment Farm got involved and began exploring how to cultivate rhodiola.
“It's great for Alaska because moose don't eat it,” said Steve Brown, Professor of Agricultural Extension. “We haven't found any insects that destroy it and we haven't found any diseases. We've treated some of the rhodiola plants terribly and they recover very quickly. It's just a tough plant.”
It’s not all easy going. In the wild, the rhodiola can take a couple decades to mature. When cultivated, it takes four to five years, so farmers have to be willing to wait for that first harvest.
The plant is harvested for its root. Once harvested, the root is washed, chopped up and dried for use as tea or made into an extract.
The market seems to be there for the product.
“I get inquiries all over the world every week and they're usually like ‘Can I put in an order for 2,000 kilos of dried root next year?’ and it's like last year we harvested like 800 pounds,” said Illig. “We're not quite there yet. I'm just telling the growers we can sell whatever they grow.”
Rhodiola rosea is used by people to increase stamina and mental focus, according to Illig. She says some people have a distinct sensation of feeling better and being more energized when they use rhodiola. Others notice a difference during times of stress. And some athletes find it helps.
"The reason I use it -- in marathons at about mile 19 I hit what's known as the wall, where I've basically run out of blood sugar," said Brown. "When I take rhodiola and run a marathon, I'm tired but I never hit that wall. So it allows me to have much better times. The first time I took rhodiola in a marathon I shaved 15 minutes off my time."
Medically, rhodiola has been used for treating depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and even some neurological disorders like Parkinson's disease.
But Illig wants to be clear, it’s not a magic pill. “I’ve got to make sure people understand this is not a cure. It's not a snake oil. It's not a cure but it just helps,” said Illig.