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Alaska Rhodiola harvest ramps up to bring US-sourced raw material to market

By Stephen Daniells+

25-Aug-2017
Last updated on 25-Aug-2017 at 18:24 GMT2017-08-25T18:24:07Z

Rhodiola is a high altitudes and arctic regions plant native to Europe, North America, and Asia. Image: Petra Illig
Rhodiola is a high altitudes and arctic regions plant native to Europe, North America, and Asia. Image: Petra Illig

Increasing harvests of Rhodiola rosea grown in Alaska could soon offer botanical product formulators high quality “grown in the U.S.” R. rosea for the first time.

Up until a few years ago, the only Rhodiola species found in Alaska was R. integrifolia. There may be a few patches of R. rosea that have drifted across the Bering Strait from the Russian Far east explained Dr Petra Illig, an Alaskan physician that has been working with a group of Alaskan farmers for several years to grow the plant in the 49th State.

There are about 60 different species of Rhodiola, but R. rosea is unique due to its chemical composition and medicinal value.

Dr Illig and her farmers are now approaching their fifth harvest, and so far have been selling dried root locally and to a botanical company on the east coast.

“We will have substantially larger harvests coming on line in the next 2-3 years, and I want to let the botanical world know that we will be ready for their orders!” she told NutraIngredients-USA.

Growing interest

The timing looks good, with interest in R. rosea on the rise. Rhodiola is in the top 40 herbal dietary supplements sales in the in both mass and natural channels, according to a report in HerbalGram 111 . Combined sales totaled almost $13 million in 2015. For an extensive review of R. rosea in HerbalGram 56, please click HERE .

The primary health use of the herb has been for stress, mental and physical fatigue, depression, and to boost energy. German scientists recently reported that the R. rosea extracts may also improve the symptoms of ‘burnout’, with considerable effects already being detectable after the first week (Neuropsychiatric Disease and Treatment , Vol. 13, pp. 889–898).

“Start growing stuff that likes growing in Alaska”

Image: Petra Illig

Agriculture in Alaska is a challenge, and Dr Illig said she always marveled at Alaskan farmers because there are very few areas where you can grow things without requiring very expensive infrastructure. A report published by the state auditor of Alaskan about 15 years ago concluded that the agricultural industry in Alaska was very limited, she said, and that farmers should, “start growing stuff that likes growing in Alaska instead of fighting the environment to make things grow”.

“This report was in the back of my mind when in 2008 I read an article in Science News about a medicinal plant that grows in Siberia and I wondered if it could grow in Alaska,” said Dr Illig. “It then turns out that this was being attempted in Alberta, Canada, so I befriended an agronomist there and he sent me a handful of seeds. From them I produced 100,000 seedlings over two years, and I said that if I can do this then talented farmers can definitely make it work.”

Dr Illig then started “sweet-talking” farmers to take advantage of the subarctic environment to produce high quality roots, rivaling anything from Siberia, she said.

Product line

Alaska Rhodiola Enterprises currently processes the roots shortly after harvest to maintain rosavin levels. The roots are washed, sliced and dried. This durable raw material can then be further processed into a variety of products such as extracts, capsules, or sports drinks.

“I see an opportunity to not only be a broker for the root, but I also want to establish an industry in Alaska for Rhodiola,” said Dr Illig. “I want to build an extraction facility and create jobs. We can compete with Siberian and Chinese Rhodiola as long as we focus on quality.”

“We are working to develop our own rhodiola product line. Alaska is famous for exporting its raw materials to ‘outside’ companies, and I'd like to keep value-added rhodiola manufacturing here in Alaska by producing our own end products,” she added.  

Dr Illig said she has three goals:
1. To put good money in the pockets of Alaskan farmers;
2. To produce the highest quality R. rosea products on the planet; and
3. To create a strong business around R. rosea.

“As a physician, who has seen the benefits of our rhodiola in my patients, I am thrilled to be involved in this fledgling industry and am dedicated to high quality,” she said. “We have demonstrated proof of concept - that rhodiola grows very well in Alaska.”

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