Peninsula growers discover opportunity with Rhodiola

A small group of dedicated Alaskan growers are cultivating a production industry for Rhodiola rosea, also known as king’s crown.

Alaska Rhodiola Products, an 11-member cooperative statewide network of small-scale operations that currently totals roughly five acres, is working to become a supplier for the international market on a large scale.

Attendees at the Kenai Peninsula Resource and Conservation Development District’s fifth annual Ag Forum Saturday heard an update on the fledgling industry.

The international demand for Rhodiola exceeds the supply, said Steve Albers, who is managing nearly half an acre of 4-year-old plants with his wife Linda Albers on their farm, Dandelion Acres.

“The current market would deplete the wild stock in a hurry, thus it certainly is not a sustainable source,” Linda Albers wrote in an email. “In the wild, it is sparsely scattered in high altitudes in areas nearly impossible to navigate, and is protected and prized by the governing bodies of the arctic areas where it is found.”

The Swedish Herbal Institute contacted the cooperative with an interest in purchasing 5,000 pounds of the processed root, Steve Albers said. That equates to roughly 25,000 pounds of the raw product, he said.

Right now, less than one acre is being harvested in the state, said Al Poindexter, who owns and runs Anchor Point Greenhouse in Anchor Point, which is one of the largest operations in the state. Currently, his plants cover four acres, which he will double by the end of the summer.

If the plant is being domestically cultivated it takes five years to reach maturity, and is strong enough to harvest the roots from, Steve Albers said. In the wild it takes almost two decades.

Steve Albers purchased his starter plants two years ago from the cooperative, and has planted nearly 15,000 seeds so far.

Rhodiola’s main commercial purpose is medicinal, Poindexter said. It is immune to the taste buds of rabbits and moose, he said.

Eventually, the cooperative plans to expand include 50 harvestable acres statewide, Poindexter said. The challenge is finding farmers with enough acreage to make a dent, he said.

“There is the opportunity and possibility of growing a new cash crop,” Poindexter said. “We’re just not finding enough people with enough acreage interested in putting this in the ground.”

Dr. Petra Illig, an M.D. in Aerospace Medicine, has 1,200 plants sewn into her front yard, and is one of the founders of the state’s industry. She first learned of the durable herb in 2008 and after extensive research, was convinced Alaska farmers could make a profit off the plant.

“I had to convince myself of the health benefits first,” Illig said.

The processed root is commercially sold, usually in capsule form and is most commonly used to stimulate physical and mental performance, Illig said.

“Initially studied by the Soviets in the 1940s to counteract fatigue, it has since been found to have many other benefits,” Illig wrote in an email. “It is also being used in the treatment of certain types of depression and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and has become an ingredient in many sports supplements.”

The active ingredients in the plant are called rosavins and are considered to be adaptogens, Illig wrote. Instead of creating biochemical reactions in the body, adaptogens strengthen normal biological pathways that are weakened due to stress.

It is known to be non-toxic, unlike many other stimulants such as caffeine or ephedra, Illig said.

The University of Alaska Fairbanks has provided processing support for the cooperative’s first two harvests, and studies are underway with the University of Alaska Anchorage to improve product quality and yield, Illig said.

The experiments are aimed at determining the best time to harvest, Illig said. It is believed that late summer and early fall is the best time to gather the mature roots, she said.

Aside from expanding and diversifying Alaska agriculture, the cooperative’s plan may have a global impact.

In its native environment in Siberia, the numbers of the plant are dwindling, Illig said. The cooperative is working to ensure the strains of Rhodiola being grown domestically are close to the natural species.